MISAWA, AICHI, JAPAN
MISAWA, Japan - Six U.S. Air Force pilots stand side-by-side in front of hundreds of watching eyes. For the next two hours, their workspace is no longer the cockpit of a U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon thousands of feet in the sky. Instead, it's center stage under the spotlights, where their performance on the ground determines their future in the air.
All the work through a pilot's young career culminates with a process called verification, where they're assessed by wing leadership to determine if they are combat-ready to fly 35th Fighter Wing missions. For the first time in the wing's history, the briefing was open to the entire wing, and hundreds of airmen from different career fields tuned in late last month for an inside look at the making of a Wild Weasel pilot.
The verification lasted one week, and took place following months of mission qualification training. It began with a rigorous academic schedule - three days committed to planning a large-scale mission and studying the many intricate parts and systems of the jet. The next step was putting that preparation into action in a flight simulator that paired up nearly 69 jets in action at one time simultaneously fighting a full-fledged enemy on limited radio communication. On the final day, the pilots - alongside their intelligence and ground control teams - stood before the crowd, briefed the mission and were drilled with detailed questions and scenarios involving the simulation.
"You have the entire wing, including all the guys who have spent 20 or more years doing the very same mission and know everything about it, and their job is to question your every move," said Capt. John Loveman, 14th Fighter Squadron pilot. "That can be intimidating."
Wing leaders asked dozens of questions, with topics ranging from how to most effectively eliminate enemy threats to how to cope with in-air fuel restrictions and emergencies. Admittedly, the majority of the pilot-to-pilot interaction comes off as its own language to untrained ears.
Following the two-hour brief, Col. Stephen Williams, 35 FW commander, issued a "pass" result for the pilots, officially enabling them to fly Wild Weasel combat missions.
"It comes down to a 'pass' or 'fail' to decide if these pilots are ready to go to war," Loveman said. "To be in a position to protect others means a lot."
The decision to pass the pilots is well measured; the simulated mission - created and conducted by Capt. Ryan Worrell, 35 FW weapons and tactics flight commander - is one of extreme detail and intensity.
Worrell said the typical allocation for airplane missions out of Misawa is eight versus four, and even large scale exercises like Red Flag Alaska fly with around 25 aircraft - nearly only one third what these pilots faced.
"We had a huge strike package behind us," said 1st Lt. Danielle Kangas, a newly verified14 FS pilot. "The most important thing was to stick to the game plan."
Kangas said the most difficult aspect of the mission was trying to accurately communicate a threat knowing another pilot may have already called it in because there were 69 aircraft in contact at once.
"The simulated mission is more dynamic than normal, but exactly how we would operate," Worrell said. "We fly in a cockpit that has a full 360 degree view of the battlefield and we're getting shot at and shooting back as we would in live combat."
Loveman, who served as a flight lead, said to get that many aircraft in one airspace would be nearly impossible, but that the lofty scenario only served to benefit the pilots.
"Typically when we're training, we can't physically get shot at," Loveman said. "But in these simulations, we can actually assess that a bullet ripped through our jet or that a missile exploded within a certain radius that forces us to react to the effects of it."
Verifications - which occur quarterly - generally pair up two flight leads who have previously verified years before and two wingmen who are attempting the verification. With more pilots completing MQT in the same time frame this quarter here, one flight lead led five wingmen through the process.
Kangas has been at Misawa for three months, and traded the winters of Minnesota for those of Northern Japan. Growing up, the roar of F-16s with the 148th Fighter Wing in her hometown of Duluth stole her attention and sparked her pursuit of a flying career. She said the verification was more than just earning a personal qualification for her career.
"It's great to be able to talk about our mission, explain what we do and show everyone assigned to the wing how they're integrated," Kangas said. "We couldn't do our job without everyone executing their role."
For all the intoxicating excitement involved with piloting one of the most powerful machines on the planet, there's a sobering seriousness to its purpose and devastating capabilities. The Wild Weasel mission is the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, and their motto "First In, Last Out," is not a sugarcoated approach.
"Most of these countries we fight against have very intricate air defense systems, and it's our job to go in there first and take them out," Kangas said. "Every potential war we go in to, we're there to clear the path and get the job done."
Loveman and Kangas lauded their ground control operators and Intel teams as well, noting the importance they play in destroying enemy surface-to-air missile sites.
"They're our eyes and ears out there, tracking threats that could potentially shoot us down," said Kangas. "They analyze and give is real-time assessments of our dangers out there."
Senior Airman Brittany Baker, 14 FS senior intelligence analyst, said the analysts take in-depth looks at the different threats of nations and relay information to pilots based on mission routes.
Worrell said the right to put the mission into action is first earned through many hours in the classroom.
"We take the pilots and teach them every system on the aircraft in intricate detail," Worrell said. "It's why we're the best air force in the world.
"We take it to the point of focusing an entire week on one single mission. We work on every single detail, and not only will they learn it, they'll accurately present it and execute when it matters."
Kangas said flying the Wild Weasel mission is an extreme honor and a job these 35 FW pilots would not give up for anything.
"We go out there to employ the SEAD mission and we put ourselves in harms way a lot more than others do," Kangas said. "To engage the enemy and their threats to keep others alive is a rewarding feeling."
||MISAWA, AICHI, JP
This work, Wild Weasels qualify for combat, by SSgt Derek Vanhorn, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.