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23rd EFS protects Baltic skies

by Capt. Thomas Crosson
23rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron

11/4/2005 - SIAULIAI AIR BASE, Lithuania (AFPN) -- Providing security over the Baltic countries of Eastern Europe is no easy task.

But the 23rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron is constantly training, even while deployed, to effectively address any airborne threats to the area.

The 23rd EFS is provides 24-hour air policing coverage over Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The 120-person squadron is responsible for ensuring its fleet of four F-16 Fighting Falcons is maintained, armed and ready to launch at a moments notice, while working at a bare-base environment under challenging weather conditions.

NATO has taken on the task of providing around-the-clock security over the skies of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia since the countries joined the NATO alliance in March 2004. The 23rd EFS is responsible for protecting more than 97,000 square miles of airspace over these countries.

NATO’s partner nations share in this duty on a rotational basis. So far, air forces from the England, Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany have deployed here to fill 90-day tours. Poland will take over for the 23rd EFS in late December.

The 23rd EFS relies on an air monitoring station near Kaunas, Lithuania and a combined air operations center outside Stuttgart, Germany, to provide them with real-time assessment of air traffic. If an unidentified aircraft enters the airspace, these stations can direct the squadron to launch. Three pilots, a life support specialist, an operations resource manager and 11 aircraft maintainers are on alert at all times.

Once an aircraft is intercepted, the pilots run through a checklist of items to determine if the aircraft is in distress or if its intentions are hostile.

“Our primary focus is to contact the pilot and determine the status of the aircraft,” said Lt. Col. David Youtsey, 23rd EFS detachment commander. “Unidentified aircraft can enter the airspace for a variety of reasons. A pilot could be lost or could have problems with their communications equipment. That’s why it’s important to try and communicate with the pilot before we determine our next course of action.”

While the pilots aren’t flying, they are preparing flight plans and ensuring the airfield remains safe. They also work alongside maintainers to ensure aircraft are prepped and ready to go.

“You never know when we’ll be told to scramble,” said Capt. Sean Penrod, a 23rd FS pilot deployed from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. “We sleep with our G-suits, harnesses and helmets by our cots, or sometimes we leave our gear in the jet. Everywhere I go in the alert facility, I have to think about the fastest way to get to the jet.”

During a scramble call, the alert maintainers rush to their aircraft to assist with the launch, and ensure the jets remain ready throughout the deployment.

“This is entirely different than home-station flying,” said Master Sgt. Tracy Hatch, a 23rd Aircraft Maintenance Unit production supervisor. “We keep the jets here at a higher state of readiness than we would at home.”

During operations at home station, pilots typically accept their aircraft right before pre-flight checks. Accepting the jet involves the pilot and crew chief reviewing maintenance paperwork and spot-checking the aircraft’s critical systems.

“A pilot here can walk out to a jet anytime and practically take right off,” Sergeant Hatch said . “A lot of the pins and covers we would normally keep in place until moments before takeoff are already removed. It forces our alert crew chiefs to be on their toes and allows them to get the jets off the ground quicker.”

For the maintainers, the break from their home-station routine is welcomed.

"This is exciting. It's fast paced,” said Senior Airman Chirs Mustard, a 23rd AMU crew. “We get to do things here we don’t regularly do at home, like work with live munitions and work directly with other maintenance and weapons specialists. This has been a great experience.”  

(Courtesy of U.S. Air Forces in Europe News Service)

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