The move to Bulgaria was announced earlier in April, as the F-15s were taking part in Dutch air power exercise Frisian Flag. The F-15s are part of a Theater Security Package (TSP) and will stay in Europe for five more months. Together, they form the 159th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, made up of aircraft and personnel from Air National Guard units in Florida, California, Massachusetts and Oregon.
The F-15s already present in Bulgaria are part of the Louisiana Air National Guard’s 159th Fighter Wing. They arrived here mid April, to take part in joint Bulgarian exercise Thracian Eagle.
The US moved one of its top air-to-air assets far into Eastern Europe this week, by sending Louisiana Air National Guard F-15s to Graf Ignatievo airbase in Bulgaria. They will participate in exercise Thracian Eagle 2015, together with the Bulgarian Air Forces’ MiG-29s and Su-25s. The US F-15s currently at Leeuwarden airbase in the Netherlands are also expected to re-deploy to Bulgaria.
The Eagles currently already in Bulgaria are part of the Louisiana Air National Guard’s 159th Fighter Wing, based at Naval Air Station-Joint Reserve Base New Orleans. The F-15s first arrived in Europe earlier in April, flying into Lakenheath airbase in the UK. The aircraft along with with 150 personnel, have now moved on to Bulgaria.
Fighting Falcons are a familiar sight in the skies over the Dutch airbase of Leeuwarden. But these days Eagles join them. They are US Air National Guard F-15 Eagle air superiority aircraft and they deployed from the US to Leeuwarden last week as part of US operation Atlantic Resolve. Soon, they’ll soar over more of Europe. Good news for Eagle fans. Lt. Col. Paul Reedy, commander of the Florida Air National Guard’s 159th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, is one of them.
“Undefeated in aerial combat.” That about sums up the F-15 Eagle in the eyes of Reedy, who commands the twelve aircraft that flew to Leeuwarden last week along with personnel from the Florida Air National Guard. The deployment also involves staff from Air National Guard units in California, Massachusetts and Oregon, with the latter also providing six aircraft.
The ferry flight from Jacksonville, Florida, was quite eventful, says Reedy. “We postponed our arrival by one day due to turbulence of the Atlantic. We would have had a nice tail wind on the way over here, but that same tail wind would have made for turbulence and quite an uncomfortable ride. When we finally arrived the winds at Leeuwarden were up to 50 knots. In Florida we are used to thunderstorms but not winds that strong. However, there was a window in the weather that allowed us to land here.”
Today, on 8 April, the pilots are flying joint tactical missions with Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) F-16s, in preparation for large scale military exercise Frisian Flag, kicking of on 13 April at Leeuwarden. Also joining the exercise are Eurofighter Typhoons from Germany, F-18 Hornets from Finland and Spain, plus Polish F-16s. Reedy: “Our goals are to work on our interoperability with different NATO partners and we’ll be working on our offensive and defensive air-to-air techniques. I myself look forward to meeting Eurofighter Typhoon in the air, as I personally haven’t done that yet. It’s a great learning opportunity.”
About half of the Eagles deployed to Leeuwarden are equipped with the very latest APG-63(V)3 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. “The F-15 was a great air-to-air platform when it was originally built in the seventies and it still is today. Between then and now we’ve undergone many upgrades of our avionics plus offensive and defense systems. They continue to give us a lethal platform today and into the future”, says Reedy. His tactical nickname is ‘Stoner’ and as a seven year old he dreamed of flying the Eagle. Reedy now has 1,600 hours on type.
That lethality is exactly the US wants to show Russia. The F-15s at Leeuwarden are in fact a Theater Security Package (TSP) the US has sent as a show of force to Europe’s Eastern neighbour, the second since US Air Force A-10C “Warthogs” arrived in Germany last February. Those A-10s have been across Europe as well. Just like the Warthogs the Eagles at Leeuwarden will stay on the continent for six months, with personnel rotating. “After taking part in Frisian Flag, we are heading to Graf Ignatievo Airbase in Bulgaria. There we will also train with NATO allies,” says Reedy.
First, on this murky Wednesday in April, there’s training to be done with Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16s. Four Fighting Falcons and four Eagles loudly take off for an air-to-air combat mission. In April the F-15 Eagle will be a familiar sight in the skies over the Netherlands. In fact, it will be a familiar sight in the skies all over Europe for months to come. Surely the predator will be noticed.
“First flight Boeing KC-46 delayed until summer,” aviation news headlines read recently. Over Germany, it’s of no concern to the three crew members of a 55 year old Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker, belonging to the 174th Air Refuelling Squadron of the Iowa Air National Guard. Why? Because theirs is such a nice aircraft to fly, thanks especially to the four CFM-56 turbofan engines that sort of define the ‘R’ version of the KC-135. “These engines make it climb like a rocket,” says Major Joe Bousqet. “On the other hand, it’s a stable aircraft, which is perfect for our task: refuelling other aircraft.” We’ll have to wait until Summer to know if the KC-46 is capable of doing the same.
‘Climb like a rocket.’ The words ring in our ears as we roll down runway 27 at Geilenkirchen Airbase at five in the afternoon, with 105,000 pounds of jet fuel in our tanks. And indeed as soon as the KC-135 – normally based at Colonel Bud Day Field, Sioux City – rotates, Geilenkirchen vanishes beneath us at an impressive rate. A long left turn brings us to a north easterly heading towards Northern Germany, where we will fly a race track pattern for several hours.
It’s business as usual for Bousqet and his crew. They have been at Geilenkirchen for a week now and will remain there for another, supporting the local AWACS aircraft. They know their KC-135 is in high demand, not only here over Germany, but also in current operations anywhere. “Yeah, we get around,” says Bousqet, who in civilian life flies McDonnell Douglas MD-80 airliners in the US. But now, he’s on the lookout for our customer, an E-3 AWACS that’s supposed to fly somewhere in front of us.
In the back, boom operator Staff Sgt. Mike Perez has taken his position at the boom operator’s station. “Most of this stuff is as old as the airplane itself, but it works,” he says while demonstrating the two joysticks that operate the boom that transfers the fuel to the customer aircraft, which, incidentally, glides into view beneath us, still 1,000 feet lower. The grey-white fuselage of the NATO AWACS is as easily recognizable as the large black radome over it. After we make radio contact, the E-3A approaches cautiously until only the cockpit and front section fills the glass screen that provides our boom operator which such a unique view of the world. It’s a great scene, especially with the setting sun later on.
With a calm voice, Perez guides the E-3’s pilot to where he should be, and finally moves the fuel nozzle at the end of the refuelling boom to where that should be: in the E-3’s fuel receptacle on top of the forward fuselage.
“Contact,” Perez tells the E-3 pilot. The fuel begins to flow and it marks the first of 17 more hook ups like this, although on most occasions there’s no fuel transferred. The E-3 pilots just practice staying in position ‘on the boom’, guided by Perez’s reassuring voice.
Meanwhile in the KC-135R’s cockpit, the two pilots monitor their instruments and the race track pattern on their screens. The Stratotanker’s office has been upgraded countless times, and now features partly ‘glass’ instruments. “That’s great to work with, but there’s still plenty of dials and gauges,” says co-pilot Lt. Caleb Barber, pointing to the dials in the middle of the console that show what the four CFM-56’s are up to. “Those haven’t changed much.”
Nevertheless, the KC-135 has seen many variants over the years. Boeing built no less than 732 KC-135s in Renton in Washington; the very first KC-135 first took flight on 31 August 1956. A lot of them have been retired already, but the with 414 Stratotankers still in service the most current KC-135Rs will be the mainstay of the US Air Force’s and Air National Guard’s tanker capability for years to come, until it’s successor – the KC-46A – is mission ready in numbers.
To be truthful, the KC-46 did fly late 2014, but without any air-refuelling equipment. Boeing is now installing it in the aircraft, and it won’t look and work like anything at all aboard the KC-135. “It gets a bit uncomfortable, lying here for hours at a time,” says Perez in the back of the KC-135 over Germany.
The boom operator has just chalked up the 16th hook up for that night. Evening has fallen and the E-3 is only faintly visible beneath us, just as we overfly the city of Bremershaven along the German coast. The receptacle is clearly lit however and in darkness, two more hook ups take place. In the cockpit, Bousqet and Barber prepare for the return to Geilenkirchen.
Meanwhile in the States, preparations for the KC-46’s first fully equipped flight are being made, but delays in the program and all the turmoil that got the Boeing aircraft finally chosen over the Airbus KC-30 have given the KC-46 a bad start. The 2017 deadline of entry-into-service will quickly not be met. Nevertheless, the US intends to buy a total of 179 KC-46s, named Pegasus.
Back in European skies it’s dark with a bit of low cloud as our KC-135R is heading home, lined up for the Runway 27 at ILS approach to Geilenkirchen. At 400 feet, the Stratotanker breaks out of the clouds and the runway lights show themselves. As the wheels touch down there’s 32,000 pounds of fuel remaining. We burned 28,000 pounds of fuel ourselves and we gave 45,000 pounds away to a happy customer. It’s a scenario repeated countless times by the Stratotanker, who’s legendary name will keep ringing in the ears of KC-46 Pegasus crews for a long time to come.
The news was ‘unofficial’ for a long time, but now the US Air National Guard has confirmed 12 Boeing F-15C Eagles are heading for Europe for various exercises and as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve. The Eagles from the 125th Fighter Wing, Florida Air National Guard, form the second Theater Security Package (TSP) after the A-10’s that were sent to Spangdahlem, Germany, in February.
UPDATE 3 April | The Eagles arrived in the Netherlands on 31 March and 1 April. Several belong to the Oregon Air National Guard rather than the Florida Air National Guard. The US pilots started flying missions with Dutch F16s on 3 April.
The 125th Fighter Wing is normally based at Jacksonville Air National Guard Base, Florida. Each US state has its own Air National Guard, and along with the US Air Force, these units form an integral part of US air power.
Operation Atlantic Resolve is the name the US gave to its increased military effort in Europe, following Russia’s annexation of the Crimea over a year ago, plus the more recent fighting in Eastern Ukraine.