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Training Imperative to Coastal Defense 
Feature News Story 
U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Master Sgt. Robert J. Sabonis 
Tech. Sgt. Aaron Richards, a crew chief for the 104th Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, directs Capt. Dan Wittmer to a parking spot at Naval Air Station Key West, Fla. during an air-to-air training exercise on March 16, 2009. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Master Sgt. Robert J. Sabonis)
By Capt. Matthew T. Mutti, 104th Fighter Wing Executive Staff Officer 

- After the 104th Fighter Wing was directed to convert from A-10 aircraft to F-15 aircraft in 2005, a series of changes began to unfold; changes in the base infrastructure, manning, and now the way it trains. On March 7, 2009, the wing participated in its first F-15 deployment exercise. One hundred-sixty members and seven F-15s traveled to Key West, Fla., to engage in dissimilar aircraft intercept training at Naval Air Station Key West. 

While flying the A-10, the unit would regularly deploy to engage in combat search and rescue and close air support training along with U.S. Army and Army National Guard units. This time it was different on many levels, the most evident is that all the training underway was in the realm of air-to-air combat, a skill set that the pilots of the 104th Fighter Wing gladly accept an opportunity to practice.

With snow still on the ground in New England, more than 160 members of the wing packed-up, and transported the flying operation to Naval Air Station Key West. This undertaking marks a historic first step for the wing to become operational in its new mission, slated for January of 2010, as they resume responsibly for providing air sovereignty alert from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield, Mass. With Exercise Red Flag a few months away, this opportunity allowed Airmen from throughout the base the chance to spread their wings and practice what they will be graded on in Nevada during Red Flag. 

With seven aircraft on the ground at Key West, the first step was completed…get there. Two days later the exercises began, with a pace of four aircraft launching at a time, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. The 131st Fighter Squadron, attached to the 104th Fighter Wing, flew against both Canadian CF-18 Super Hornets and U.S. Navy F-18 Hornets in both Red-Air and Blue-Air engagements. While engaging in Red-Air, the pilots would fly the role of an aggressor, mimicking the behaviors and tactics of potential adversaries. While in Blue-Air scenarios, the aviators would practice both offensive counter-air and defensive counter-air tactics.

“The value of working in these conditions is nearly unmatched,” said Capt. Daniel Wittmer, 131st Fighter Squadron weapons officer. “Within minutes we were able to engage multiple targets in the local airspace, allowing ample time to run multiple scenarios and capitalize on every training opportunity.

The maintenance and support functions played a key role to making this training opportunity a reality. Throughout the two-week long engagement, the aircraft maintainers generated 43 sorties when only 41 were originally scheduled. They maintained an 80 percent mission-capable rate with a 30 year-old airframe.

“This type of training is critical to our success providing air sovereignty to the Northeast, specifically when we could be engaged with different types of aircraft crossing into our airspace,” said Col. Robert T. Brooks Jr., 104th Fighter Wing commander. “The wing demonstrated that it was still proficient in its expeditionary foundations; generating seven jets for deployment all while making sure all the support functions were properly equipped and trained is no simple feat.”

While conducting this training in Key West, the Adjutant General of the Massachusetts National Guard, Maj. Gen. Joseph C. Carter, and the Assistant Adjutant General for Air, Brig. Gen. L. Scott Rice, traveled down to view the operation first hand. While at Key West, the Massachusetts National Guard leadership addressed the Airmen who participated in the exercise.

“The Massachusetts National Guard has met its objectives, you (the deployed Airmen) made it happen, and without question this training opportunity was a complete success at every level,” said Carter.

While at Naval Air Station Key West, Carter took advantage of the opportunity to fly with the 131st Fighter Squadron, learning first hand the stressors supersonic flight puts on the body and the importance of the training. Traveling at speeds in excess of 760 miles per hour, Carter is now part of a small society of Massachusetts National Guard members who have broken the sound barrier.


 Additional Imagery

(Photograph by Senior Master Sgt. Robert J. Sabonis, USAF)

Maj. Mark Malouin a 131 Fighter Squadron pilot assigned to the Massachusetts Air National Guard prepares Maj. Gen. Joseph Carter, the Massachusetts National Guard Adjutant General, for flight in an F-15 D model while at Naval Air Station Key West, on March 17, 2009. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Master Sgt. Robert J. Sabonis)

U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Master Sgt. Robert J. Sabonis

Staff Sgt. Thomas Pavelchak inspects the vertical stabilizer of a 104th Fighter Wing F-15 during a training exercise at Naval Air Station Key West, Fla. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Master Sgt. Robert J. Sabonis)