Thursday, May 17, 2007

TOP STORY >>WIC students put planning to the test

By Staff Sgt. Kati Garcia
314th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Students in the Weapons Instructor Course here put five and a half months of instruction to the test last week during a massive force entry assault.

Units from all over Little Rock Air Force Base participated in the largest Mobility Air Forces Exercise this decade on May 11.
Students began planning May 6 to coordinate 44 airdrop aircraft departing from six different bases, rejoining to three formations before airdropping on a single dropzone in a 15-minute timespan.

Aircraft involved included 14 C-130s from Little Rock AFB, five from Dyess AFB, Texas; and 25 C-17s from McGuire AFB, NJ; Charleston AFB, SC; Altus AFB, Okla.; McChord AFB, Wash.; and March Air Reserve Base, Calif.

“For the students, the challenges of coordinating (this) were tough,” said Maj. Rhett Boldenow, 29th Weapons School instructor. “But they learn that breaking the mission into manageable segments and dividing into groups with their C-17 counterparts, they can chip away at the problem and find the solution.”

In order to pull off an exercise of this size, Lt. Col. Eric Mayheu, 29th WPS operations officer described the five necessary stages.

Planning and briefing

Normally, planning a mission of this size would require months of planning.

According to Colonel Mayheu, the concept of an actual operation this step would begin several months before the event.
“We throw so much at the students that they simply don’t have months to plan an exercise,” Lt Col Mayheu said.
In order to work around this, Colonel Mayheu said the instructor course cadre handles the majority of the long term planning.

“The students take it at the tactical level,” Colonel Mayheu said. “They know who’s playing, where they’re going to be and then get them to the objective and recover them.”

Lt. Col. John Gordy, 29th WPS commander, said that bases that send participants to MAFEX can learn first hand the time and effort it takes to put a formation of this size together.

“Although they only see the execution piece, it is important for them to understand the real-world constraints that face the planning crews,” he said. “It will take the crews outside of their comfort zones to show up for a mission brief, without any prior knowledge of the plan, take the briefing from the mission commander and trust that the planners have done all they can to protect them from potential threats.”

Mass take off

Twelve of the 14 aircraft scheduled to fly were maintained by the 314th Maintenance Group. Eleven of those 12 were airborne on time.

“(The members of the 314th MXG) were rock stars,” said Colonel Mayheu. He said Col. Howard Shelwood, 314th MXG commander, Chief Master Sgt. Willie Goodwin, 314th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron maintenance superintendent, “and everyone below them in the food chain provided phenomenal support.”

Rendezvous with other aircraft

“The biggest lesson learned by everyone were the challenges associated with putting this many aircraft together in a single formation,” said Maj. Boldenow. “The opportunity to practice rendezvous procedures and join a 14-ship formation from Little Rock and a five-ship formation from Dyess is something crews don’t get to do as part of their day to day training enroute to a dropzone.” Capt. Amy Predmore, a 53rd Airlift Squadron pilot and element lead for this exercise, described that challenge.

“I know the aircraft behind me are relying on me to maintain my position so they can maintain theirs,” she said. “So there is the aspect of wanting so badly to remain in position. But if the aircraft in front of me drifted out a little, I would have to adjust to him. And I knew that caused all of the aircraft behind me to have to do the same. “I would have to speed up or slow down based on the aircraft in front of me. There was a domino effect taking place,” she said.

But, she said being able to fly with that many aircraft “is pretty amazing. It’s amazing to take off, see seven aircraft in front of you on the scope and know there are still aircraft behind you. It’s an exhilarating feeling.”

The low-level drop

As with all things in life, there are certain aspects no amount of planning and preparation can overcome. In the case of MAFEX, that aspect was weather. “The only thunderstorm in the U.S. that day was over the dropzone, and it was 50 miles wide,” Colonel Mayheu said. “None of the planes were able to get over the dropzone because of it.”

Maj. Christopher Lay, overall mission commander and flight lead, rated the exercise an eight on a scale of one to 10 because of this.

“We were able to accomplish the majority of the mission, but couldn’t get to the dropzone because of the thunderstorm,” he said. “But, our planning cell learned a lot about their capabilities and limitations and how we could expect to employ each other’s airframes.”

The recovery

“When we realized that we wouldn’t be able to get into the dropzone, we recovered at Biggs (Army Air Field, Texas),” Colonel Mayheu said. “But it was still a success.”

By success, he said, “Everyone learned something, no one got hurt and no one got lost. There may have been some mistakes, some things to debrief, but there always will be.”

All in all, the exercise is being rated “as a huge success,” according to Maj. Boldenow. “It’s difficult to assemble this many aircraft for an exercise like this,” he said. “We really appreciate all the units that support us with aircraft and crews. Because we couldn’t do this without them.


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