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Training keeping Spangdahlem 'Warthogs' ready to deploy

by Louis A. Arana-Barradas
Air Force Print News

8/18/2005 - SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany  -- A-10 Thunderbolt II pilots at this hilltop base are busy flying and training for their next deployment, which could be to Afghanistan -- again.

That is not a certainty, but deploying to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, is almost routine for the 81st Fighter Squadron. As the only A-10 unit stationed in Europe, its people and aging ground-attack aircraft were there in 2003 and again November 2004 to January 2005.

“About half our pilots were just there, so they’re very familiar with the area,” said Capt. Chad Balettie, an A-10 pilot from Springfield, Ill., who was on both deployments. But he said pilots cannot be comfortable flying there just because they have been there before.

That’s “because things change fast there,” he said. Each time the squadron goes to Afghanistan, pilots must familiarize themselves with new enemy tactics. And they must learn to work with new allied forces on the ground.

However, at home, the squadron does not train specifically for deploying to Afghanistan, said Lt. Col. Keith McBride, the squadron’s operations officer.

“We’re not focused on just Afghanistan or Iraq, or any other place currently in the news,” said Colonel McBride, who is from Greenville, Texas. “You’re supposed to be ready to go with the full spectrum of your capabilities anywhere in the world. We’re preparing for that.”

So, each day, the jets lumber off the runway here to fly a variety of training missions. On four of every 10 days, “we fly three times to maximize our opportunity train in the local area,” the colonel said.

The training is important because certain aspects of flying proficiency can lag while deployed to a combat environment. So at home, A-10 pilots practice their bread and butter missions: close-air support, interdiction and combat search and rescue.

“And any kind of mission where we’d be deploying air-to-ground munitions in support of troops on the ground,” he said.

But it is tough training in Germany, which has congested air space and limited training ranges. So when they get a chance, the unit flies as many missions as possible with NATO air and ground forces.

When the A-10s fly with the air forces of NATO’s newest members countries, it helps increase their operational capability, said Col. Scott West, 52nd Fighter Wing vice commander here. And it gives ground commanders a chance to see the jet’s capabilities.

Earlier this month, A-10s went to Romania to fly with that country’s MiG-21 fighters in an exercise called Romex 2005. The A-10s flew close-air support missions to support a U.S. Army unit also taking part in the training. The exercise was a success, the colonel said.

“The airspace was great,” Colonel West said. “A lot of open country in northern Romania allowed the A-10s to operate up to 24,000 feet and to conduct all the training -- all of it -- they needed every day, every sortie.”

Back home, the unit continues gearing up for its next air and space expeditionary force deployment scheduled for next year. The aircrews and maintainers continue testing three new upgrades to their 23- to 25-year-old jets. They include additions of targeting pods and new avionics computers and communications systems.

“We’re extremely busy learning to fly with the new components and gearing up for AEF,” Captain Balettie said. The toughest training is learning to fly with the targeting pods, of which there are few in the Air Force. “It’s a limited resource, and the skills to use it deteriorate quickly because it is more complicated.”

The squadron will have time to learn how to use the new targeting pods. Then it will have to gear up for deployment.

However, there is no getting around the fact the squadron could end up at Bagram. This U.S. Air Forces in Europe unit supports NATO, which will soon take control of military operations in Afghanistan.

Colonel West said it does not matter where the unit deploys. It will still do the job it is supposed to do, for which it trains.

“They’ll use the same capabilities to support whatever is needed -- in Afghanistan, or elsewhere,” Colonel West said.

In the meantime, the training continues. That keeps the squadron flying, and busy. The workload, on a scale of 1 to 10, is an “11,” Colonel McBride said. He said the unit is ready for any mission in Europe and elsewhere.

The busy workload puts a lot of stress on the rugged jets, said Staff Sgt. Jason Hunt, an A-10 crew chief with the 81st Aircraft Maintenance Unit. His “baby” is jet built in 1980 and has 9,650 flying hours.

The rest of the Spangdahlem fleet -- which moved to the base when Royal Air Force Bentwaters, England, closed in the early 1990s -- is reaching the 10,000-hour window. When they reach that plateau, the jets will have to undergo an overhaul, the sergeant said.

“We’ll have to redo a lot of stuff on the whole fleet,” said Sergeant Hunt, of Lonoke, Ark. However, he said the jets are not on their last legs by any means.

“The jets run really good most of the time,” he said. “You’ll have one part break and then it will break on two other jets. But we don’t have hard breaks (which ground the jets).”

On a day-to-day basis, the sergeant said the biggest problems with the aircraft are the hydraulic leaks that are a sign of old age. And there are some electrical problems as the airplanes get new upgrades. But the preventive maintenance work has paid off.

“Our mission-capable rate is the highest in (U.S. Air Forces in Europe),” Sergeant Hunt said. “I think right now we are pushing an 89-percent mission capable rate.”

That’s good news for wing leaders and the mission planners. Especially when “everybody wants A-10s to participate in whatever event is going on,” Colonel McBride said.

When the wing’s deployment orders arrive, he said, the Spangdahlem A-10s, aircrews and maintainers will be “ready to go wherever they’re needed.”

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