Vermont Air National Guard --
VOLK FIELD, Wis. (Aug. 14, 2020) – More than 250 Airmen and 12 F-35A Lightning IIs from Vermont’s 158th Fighter Wing deployed to Northern Lightning 2020, held annually at the Volk Field Readiness Training Center, for a joint-service training exercise in fighter integration, lasting the month of August.
The Green Mountain Boys trained alongside 40 other aircraft and more than 1,000 service members from the active duty Air Force, Navy, Wisconsin Air National Guard and civilian contractors. Taking all necessary precautions in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, Northern Lightning prepares air units from across the military to deploy into a joint environment and conduct combat operations together.
“Northern Lightning is an Air National Guard sponsored exercise that's really focused on 4th and 5th-gen fighter integration,” said Col. Bart Van Roo, state director of operations for Wisconsin and Northern Lightning director.
Deploying while ensuring the safety of all against COVID-19, the exercise marks the first time the 158th has flown their F-35s in a joint environment.
The Vermonters flew and trained with F-22 Raptors and T-38 Talons from the 1st Fighter Wing from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, F/A-18E Super Hornets from VFA-151 from Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 115th Fighter Wing, Wisconsin Air National Guard and L-159Es from Draken International.
“We face a lot of challenges because of it specifically,” said Van Roo regarding COVID-19. “What we did was really set aside some really well thought out and prepared measures working with the state of Wisconsin, our Department of Health Services, our military affairs throughout the state and then as well as the people in Vermont, and come up with the best ways we can have preventative measures because we still need to be ready for any scenario around the world.”
All units were kept separated in their own living and working areas, masks were required at all times when social distancing was not possible, daily COVID-19 symptom pre-screenings were conducted and mandatory testing was carried out throughout the entire training exercise, with all participants also being tested when they returned home.
Van Roo added that the military as a whole was learning how to train and operate given the constraints brought on by COVID-19, emphasizing that units do not always have the chance for this level of training.
“Our home units have a small piece of our mission that we train for every day and most of the platforms have a wide variety of mission sets that they do,” said Van Roo. “We bring those pieces of training together and make sure that we're learning lessons from how the training goes, whether it be how the technology works together, how the tactics work together and how we can be ready to face any scenario around the world.”
Flying two missions a day, the aircraft would train against simulated ground threats in the morning and focus more on air-to-air combat in the afternoons. All of this training helps lead to the 158th becoming mission ready with its full complement of F-35s, with the final aircraft arriving in September of 2020.
“It’s our building block approach through conversion,” said Lt. Col. Tony Marek, commander of the 134th Fighter Squadron.
Commonly referred to as “wild weasel,” Marek explained that suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) is the next step in the conversion process of becoming an F-35 wing. SEAD involves handling any type of enemy air defenses from radar to surface-to-air missile sites and despite the current pandemic, meeting this milestone is necessary for the unit to be mission ready.
“We need these types of exercises to actually reach those qualifications and that's just the halfway point,” said Marek. “We have a whole other round of this to go next year. That's the way we actually deploy. So whenever we go off to other locations, it's not just the Air Force that shows up there. Every time we've been on all of our overseas deployments, we generally have Navy or Marine counterparts there as well as coalition counterparts.”
Marek said as timelines were established several years ago for the 158th to be fully mission ready, it is critical that the Airmen, including pilots, maintainers and support personnel, move forward with their training during the pandemic.
Despite the changes to routine needing to be made due to COVID-19, Marek said the Airmen have been nothing but successful in their tasks.
“We get a chance to hang out with maintenance a lot more here than anywhere else,” said Marek. “Both with the camaraderie but then also just the day to day execution. Right out the gate, we had all eight of our jets in the air.”
“They’re building a stronger team, everyone is very impressed with the work they’ve done so far,” said Lt. Col. Adam Nichols, commander of the 158th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.
Flying sorties of eight aircraft, twice a day, Nichols said they are in a training environment that is not possible in Vermont. But, with working with his Airmen every day, it still “feels like Vermont.”
“We haven’t missed a line yet, we’ve met every one of our requirements,” said Nichols. “It's awesome any time you're deployed or on an exercise, you can set down some of the administrative work that's back home. I've just been able to be out on the flight line every day talking with Airmen, seeing what they do and it's a great job.”
Dealing with the pandemic during this training exercise has took its toll on many, however,
“I know that it's a challenging time for a lot of folks,” Marek said of the training, “but the fact that we can all come together, execute at this high level only halfway through conversion and have some fun doing it, it's been it's been awesome to see.”
With the Airmen returning home to Vermont on Aug. 21 to COVID-19 testing and all other necessary precautions, the Green Mountain Boys thoroughly enjoyed the training experience they got at Northern Lightning.
“It’s our road to combat,” said Nichols.
“The level of exercise we were able to do is awesome,” said Marek. “It’s been a really good time.”