News: Safe Skies 2011 presents rare opportunity
Story by Maj. Matthew Mutti
By: Maj. Matthew T. Mutti
Safe Skies 2011
MIRGOROD AIR BASE, Ukraine – Capt. Frank Prokop, an Alabama Air National Guard F-16C pilot, straps into the jet for the afternoon mission. Though wearing a USAF flight suit, the Russian made helmet, and life support equipment he was dawning is designed for the SU-27 fighter that he was about to fly.
During Safe Skies 2011, a joint US, Ukraine and Polish event where Air National Guard pilots will fly engagements with Ukrainian Su-27, Mig-29s and Polish F-16s on Air Sovereignty operations in preparation for the 2012 Olympics and 2012 EUROCup and 2014 Winter Games in Europe; many U.S. and Ukrainian pilots will have the opportunity to fly in the other countries aircraft.
This unique program allows the pilots to further their integration training through hands-on experience. It also helps them understand the different techniques used during an intercept mission, based on the capabilities of the aircraft.
“There is no better way to understand the limitations and capabilities of an aircraft then by strapping in and taking it out for a mission”, said Capt. Frank Prokop. “When you collaborate on a mission as complicated as air sovereignty, understanding the tools you have to work with is very important."
When asked to compare the flight characteristics of the Ukraine fighter, Prokop said it was very smooth; the handling was very different from the F-16C, but incredibly responsive.
“You can tell the Ukrainian maintenance teams put a lot of care into these aircraft.”
As the U.S. pilots conduct training missions within the states, the typical adversaries they simulate fighting against are the SU-27 and Mig-29 due to their comparable capabilities.
“I was honored to be able to fly with the Ukraine pilot, and to better understand the true capabilities of this advanced fighter,” said Prokop.
When the two pilots met and briefed, there was a language barrier, in that neither pilot spoke the others language very clearly, but once they were in the jet they spoke the common language of air superiority.
“Your control, my control”, was all that was said by Ukraine Col. Oleh Ges, the Mirgorod Base commander, who flew with Capt. Prokop. As Ges made a gesture with the stick, Prokop knew it was his turn to fly, and what maneuvers they needed to perform.
While the SU-27 took off, across the ramp Lt. Col. Kirk Toomey, a Calif. Air National Guard F-16C/D pilot strapped into his jet with Lt. Col. Dmytro Fisher in the back seat. Fisher is an SU-27 pilot assigned to Mirgorod Air Base, Ukraine.
“The feeling of the sky is the same with our fighter and theirs” said Dmytro through a translator.
“I think the F-16 is a little less powerful, but more maneuverable. It was such an honor to fly with Col. Toomey, and the adrenalin is still pumping, it was an experience of a lifetime."
The pilot exchange serves another very valuable purpose; it creates a very special bond between the pilots, especially the ones who took the other pilot up for the orientation ride.
Shared experiences are what make this event different from most others performed by these Air National Guard members. Collaboration is much more effective if there is a common sense of belonging.