TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
Air Force aviators from across the country converged for Checkered Flag 17-1, a large-scale, aerial total-force exercise. The high-end, multi-airframe integration exercise ran from Dec. 5-16.
Fourth- and fifth-generation fighter pilots worked together to complete missions involving multiple airframes including F-35A Lightning II, F-22 Raptors, F-16CM Fighting Falcons, F-15E Strike Eagles, HH-60G Pave Hawks and an E-3 Sentry in preparation for the future of the Air Force’s combat capabilities.
“The ability to rapidly bring a force together from various locations is representative of what we would do in combat,” said Col. Randy Cason, Checkered Flag 17-1 Air Expeditionary Wing commander. “We would quickly bring units to one location, have introductions, form a team, and in a matter of hours, begin flying missions. This is highly representative of an extreme strategic capability that we bring to the combatant commanders and to the United States of America.”
Participating units alternated acting as “Red Air,” or opponent aircraft, replicating known adversarial tactics and capabilities to train the AEW pilots in the most realistic combat situations possible during the two-week exercise.
The 20th Fighter Wing from Shaw AFB, South Carolina, and the 336th Fighter Wing from Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, brought 16 F-16CMs and 16 F-15Es, respectively, to the fight enabling full fourth- and fifth-generation integration training.
“One of the most beneficial aspects of Checkered Flag is that we have the ability to integrate on a daily basis with fifth- and four-generation assets,” said Capt. Brian Leber, 55th Fighter Squadron F-16 pilot. “Back at Shaw, we have F-16s, so we don’t have that opportunity. Here every mission that we fly is a mix of assets. We brief, fly and debrief with [each other] and figure out how we can all work together to achieve the overall objective.”
With the F-35 recently reaching initial operating capability and the relative newness of the F-22, integration between legacy aircraft and these newer fighters creates a host of challenges and opportunities. Pilots work together to overcome these issues and fully capitalize on fifth-generation capabilities during exercises like Checkered Flag.
“For us, it’s very important that we come here and integrate with all of the assets that are playing here so that they understand the capabilities and limitations of our platform so we can better interweave those [different capabilities] to create the most lethal and survivable force,” said Lt. Col. Brad Bashore, 58th Fighter Squadron commander and F-35 pilot from Eglin AFB, Florida. “I think it’s important to understand that fifth-generation [aircraft] takes [the Air Force’s] lethal fighting force to the next level. With fourth- and fifth-generation executing together creates a complimentary relationship. We make them better, and they make us better.”