JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. — Anyone tracking flight paths as the sun set Wednesday over Washington state would have seen a major aircraft movement: military cargo planes, refueling tankers and fighter jets flying in formation.
The unique sight was part of Air Mobility Command’s inaugural Mobility Guardian — a two-week training exercise incorporating more than 3,000 service members, 40 U.S. aircraft and 20 international partners.
Taking part in the exercise were airmen, soldiers and naval aviators, along with service members from more than 20 countries — with half participating in the training scenarios and half observing.
Wednesday night kicked off the main event, a joint forcible-entry exercise with almost 20 C-130s, 13 C-17s and 10 refueling tankers from the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The jets took off from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, about 30 miles south of Seattle, on a mission to fight through threats over Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho and perform an airdrop of more than 300 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division over Moses Lake, Washington.
The crews from each country worked together as they flew in formation and dealt with communication issues — but there was one obstacle that wasn’t part of the training.
Smoke and haze from multiple wildfires in Canada and the Pacific Northwest set in over Washington on Tuesday, creating poor visibility at lower altitudes.
When the C-130s approached Mountain Home Air Force Base, the pilots were told to fly over the base normally instead of performing threat maneuvers when they detected a simulated attack from the ground.
“We flew at safe altitudes through the Mountain Home range complex rather than doing it at a true tactical low level,” Capt. Matt Adam, a C-130 pilot from the 41st Airlift Squadron at Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas, told Air Force Times. “So we lost some training there, but we were still able to work through the range and see some of the threat emitters.”
Maj. Steve Kadrich, a pilot from the 41st Airlift Squadron who flew a C-130J during the training mission, said even though the wildfires limit what you can do in a situation like that, technology and mission planning help.
“Using some of our technology, like night vision, helps aid us to still try to do our best to get the mission accomplished,” he said.
The smoke didn’t stop the C-130s from completing the main part of their mission: dropping the 82nd Airborne paratroopers at Grant County International Airport, near Moses Lake. From there, the soldiers secured the airfield, allowing the 821st Contingency Response Group to perform air base opening operations.
“By the time we got to the actual personnel drop at the Grant County airport, all the smoke had cleared up and the night-vision goggles were able to burn through the haze,” Adam said.
Capt. Brennan Schilperoort, a 41st Airlift Squadron pilot who flew with Kadrich, said you fall back on your training during missions like this.
“You decide what would be acceptable based on the level of risk and the level of assets that we still have,” he said.
In this case, the commanders called an audible and decide to continue with the airdrop instead of maneuvering through Mountain Home.
With an exercise of this magnitude and so many working parts, the crews agreed that communication is the key component.
“As C-130s, we do a lot of exercises with the C-17s at other bases around the country,” Kadrich said. “We have a pretty good working relationship with them, but when you start integrating other players like some of the tanker aircraft, some fighter aircraft and international players, it adds another element to the entire scenario.”
Speaking plainly with the other pilots is sometimes the best solution to the problem, he said.
Joint training exercises like Mobility Guardian allow that communication and work ethic among different parts of the military, as well as other countries, to improve.
“There’s not many opportunities to do anything like this in a normal training environment,” Adam said. “It’s a lot of fun — getting to fly C-130Hs and Js together is a treat.”
Adam said he assumes the debrief will come out with some communication plan changes, as well as adjusting the time over target to account for the sunset, moon rise and visibility issues that the crews ran into.
“You just have to kind of be ready for any of the changes,” he said.
Schilperoort said it’s also interesting to see how other countries fly and operate.
One of the biggest differences for the C-130s is how close they’re able to fly to each other, whereas air regulations don’t allow Canadian aircraft to fly as close to their fellow planes.
“Each of their aircraft had to be its own call sign with its own flight plan,” Schilperoort said. “We’re all getting to learn from each other here to see what works better and how we can integrate more effectively and efficiently.”
With so many moving parts, another key is getting the coordination right.
“One of the biggest challenges is coordinating with the ground crew that actually delivers packages to us that we’ll then fly with,” said Staff Sgt. Shane Mendenhall, a loadmaster who flew with Kadrich and Schilperoort. “Just coordinating with them to make sure we’re getting things on time so we can go execute the mission.”
Kadrich said one of the benefits of a bigger exercise like Mobility Guardian is the opportunity to try again.
“If we lose out on our training one night, we can go back a few nights later and still accomplish that training,” he said.