HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
As the sun beamed down on the flightline, causing skin to burn and glisten, the warm moisture that lingered in the air felt as if you were being followed by an invisible force constantly exhaling on your face.
Burning jet fuel blurred the surrounding lush, green grass and vibrant wildflowers against the tail pipes of the F-16 Fighting Falcons and F-15 Eagles.
The distant ocean breeze when mixed with the strong gusts of jets soaring into the blue sky welcomed sweet relief to the members of the 8th Fighter Squadron.
No longer was the unit in the high altitudes of the dry, brown desert of Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, but was now below sea level in the humid, deep south of Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans, Louisiana.
Holloman’s 8th FS deployed on a temporary duty assignment to NAS JRB New Orleans and participated in a training exercise March 29 to April 12, 2019.
“One thing that was really important to me was to be able to bring the entire squadron and deploy just as if we were to go fight,” said Lt. Col. Mark Sletten, 8th FS commander.
The 8th FS brought all the elements for a fully functioning squadron of 158 personnel and 15 F-16s on this TDY, including eight F-16 Basic Course pilot students.
“Our B-Course students, learning to fly F-16s, have never deployed or gone TDY together as a squadron,” said Sletten. “It is a really unique opportunity for them to go to a new place, learn a bunch of new procedures and still be able to fight well and do what we are asking them to do via the syllabus.”
Students also had the opportunity to practice flying over open water, something new to them that they will see a lot of during their careers.
The Viper pilots participated in dissimilar aircraft training and close air support exercises with the F-15 Eagles from the Louisiana National Guard’s 159th Fighter Wing and joint terminal air controllers from the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group.
“We set up something we would see in combat, where our jets were working together as a team with another unit and then fighting them as a simulated enemy,” said Sletten. “We got a lot of sorties done and got all of the students through their syllabus training as well – a huge win for us.”
U.S. Army Capt. Austin Cross, 370th Ground Liaison Detachment officer on Holloman, said this TDY was a great training opportunity for both the ground and air forces, sharing airspace with the local units from different military branches.
While the training was an overall success, the weather played a huge part in contributing to flight delays and mechanical set-backs.
“One of the challenges we have seen here in New Orleans was the weather,” said Sletten. “The big storms made it to where we could not fly because of thunder and lightning. Unfortunately, when the rain gets into our avionics and systems, it creates electrical issues. It is really no fault to our maintainers, it just causes us to have some maintenance problems in terms on the jets not doing so well in the rain.”
But even with the complications that were faced because of the weather, Sletten said the morale on this TDY was at an all-time high.
“Being able to go out and enjoy some of the fine things a big city (like New Orleans) has to offer has really brought the unit together,” said Sletten. “There have been a lot of smiles, and I have had several people come up to me and tell me this is the best TDY they have ever been on.”
When it comes to a fully functioning fighter squadron, each section is critical and has their own impact on the mission.
The members of 54th Operations Support Squadron’s Aircrew Flight Equipment spent over two weeks preparing the gear that would be used on this TDY, not only for the operational and student pilots, but for those who were selected for familiarization flights.
Because of the gravitational forces the body experiences during a flight in a fighter jet, a special set of trousers and mask must be worn to regulate oxygen levels in the body. Gear must be inspected and fit regularly.
“I have always respected the pilots, but actually being in the cockpit and experiencing it for myself changed my entire perspective,” said Airman Samantha Anderson, 54th OSS AFE apprentice and selected FAM flier. “When I return to Holloman, I am going to take the extra time to fit the pilots and future FAM fliers the way I would want to be fitted, now that I know how it should feel when experiencing the G’s. No amount of reading my career development courses or technical orders could have prepared me enough for what it is like to be up there.”
Anderson’s excitement poured out of her words when describing how calm the world appeared on the outside of the cockpit, even when she was experiencing gravitational pulls six times her body weight – upside down!
“I feel extremely lucky,” said Anderson. “Not only to be on this TDY, but to be selected to go on a FAM flight. Both of these experiences were firsts for me, and I have only been in the Air Force less than one year. I am so blessed.”
Another FAM flyer had the ride of his life when he was read the Oath of Enlistment over the radio and re-enlisted in the back of the F-16.
“It is an experience that very few people will be able to say they have done,” said Staff Sgt. Cody Vaughan, 8th FS department of training’s non commissioned officer in charge. “I have never met another enlisted Airman who can say they re-enlisted in the back of an F-16, but I can.”
The 8th FS packed up and returned to Holloman, April 12, 2019.
Gathered together at the gate at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans National Airport, Louisiana, members of the 8th FS awaited the arrival of the first westbound airplane of the day.
Sun-kissed and drained from the long days and nights they spent together, favorite moments of future memories were reciprocated between one another and laughter echoed throughout the terminal.