More than just a pilot in the sky

  • Published
  • By Maj. Elizabeth Magnusson
  • 944th Fighter Wing
Over the past year, the 69th Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., has sent 22 pilots on contingency deployments throughout the world. The U.S. Air Force Reserve unit's primary mission is to train combat ready F-16 pilots, but in addition to this role, its pilots regularly deploy in the "Viper" for real-world global contingencies. In 2012, nine of the unit's Citizen Airmen flew missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We're more than just a training unit, we deploy all the time," said Lt. Col. Kevin Aunapu, 69th Fighter Squadron director of operations. "Not only do we deploy to support flying operations, we'll supplement contingency staffing shortfalls. For example, Lt. Col. Robert Whitehouse, the 69th Fighter Squadron commander, returned from a 179-day deployment acting as the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group Deputy Commander at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. While there, he played a key role in the oversight of the largest drawdown of combat forces since World War II. "

During his deployment in late 2011, Whitehouse was responsible for the planning and movement of all air assets out of Iraq while ensuring that all ground units were protected by air until the last troop left Iraq.

Typical deployments for 69th pilots range from three to 12 months with all of the deployments being voluntary and "by-name-requested" by the deploying units.

"Not to long ago we had three instructor pilots return from a deployment to Afghanistan where they flew close air support missions four to five days a week," said Aunapu.

Maj. Kurt Kochendarfer, Maj. Ryan Savageau, and Maj. Peter Scholl, all 69th Fighter Squadron instructor pilots, returned from a deployment to Bagram, Afghanistan as part of F-16 Close Air Support operations embedded with the 177th Fighter Wing, New Jersey Air National Guard, Atlantic City, New Jersey.

"We've worked for them in the past," said Kochendarfer. "That's why we got the call to help supplement them again."

"When we get to a new unit, they are sometimes hesitant about our qualifications since we're Reservists from a training base," said Kochendarfer. "But once we fly with them, all doubts go away. In fact, we typically get by-name requests once a unit is introduced to us."

"I think it's our training that makes us stand out," Kochendarfer continued. "We focus a lot on fundamental training as instructor pilots while operational units can get stuck in a training rut where they'll be limited to one type mission. Additionally, with the fantastic tactical range facilities available to us locally, we get a lot of great experience here at Luke that isn't necessarily available at other locations. I think one of the things we do really well here is build the fundaments that make great tactical pilots."

Pilots in the 69th Fighter Squadron have an average of 2,300 hours of flight time in the F-16, an average of 1,000 instructor hours, with 95% of the members having combat experience.

"We're a reliable manpower reserve for experienced fighter pilots, ready to supplement any RegAF, ANG or Reserve F-16 unit needing extra pilots for their deployment contingencies" said Aunapu. "I can't think of any fighter squadron anywhere that has more experience."

On this deployment, the pilots were flying night missions and performed overwatch for ground patrols and convoys.

"We were flying almost every other night," said Savageau. "In addition to flying, we filled squadron positions including operations supervisor, standardization and evaluation tasks, and supervisor of flying duties, all of which, kept us extremely busy."

Kochendarfer and Savageau agree that the highlight of their deployment was getting the chance to go out and visit the Forward Operating Bases and getting to know the Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) who they communicated with daily on the radio, getting clearances and direction to drop their weapons.

"Our visit with the JTACs captures why we do what we do," said Kochendarfer. "It's not about going and flying circles in the air. There's a bigger picture going on and I think getting to know the guys on the ground you're supporting, or saving, is the highlight. Meeting those guys who are the real heroes and being ableto interface with them, talk with them, see their challenges, their limitations and frustrations, and being able to connect with them on a first hand basis is extremely important. A lot of the time we're half a country away and we just show up in the skies above them and typically don't really have context of what their facing. Having that face-to -face interaction, and being able to put everything into context was great. It brings it all back to what you're there for."

It really hit home for Scholl when, after visiting a FOB, he was saving the lives of the very same people he'd met just four days later.

"An Army unit was hit by an IED and was requesting help," said Savageau. "You could really hear the panic in their voices over the radio because they don't know if they were under attack or if it was a single IED. But once we arrived overhead and started talking to the troops on the ground and they could hear the jet noise, their voices came down 10 octaves. I didn't have to drop a bomb; just being there made the difference."

"When you get to meet and interact with the folks down range, it really makes them more than a voice on the radio," said Savageau. "You know the guys and they get to know you. To me, the most rewarding aspect was when we were leaving for the day and the guy on the ground would say 'thanks' because you kept them safe that day."