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Road to Combat: Part I

F-35A Lightning IIs assigned to the 134th Fighter Squadron, Vermont Air National Guard, sit on the flight line after a day of flying training mission.

F-35A Lightning IIs assigned to the 134th Fighter Squadron, Vermont Air National Guard, sit on the flight line after a day of flying training mission at Northern Lightning 2020, Volk Field, Wis., Aug. 11, 2020. Elements of the 158th Fighter Wing deployed to the annual exercise that gives the wing and aircraft training in deploying and conducting combat missions in a joint environment, including F-22 Raptors, F/A-18 Super Hornets and F-16 Fighting Falcons that flew with them in the nearly month-long exercise. (U.S. Air National Guard photo illustration by Tech. Sgt. Ryan Campbell) (This image was created by blending a series of multiple exposures.)

Vermont Air National Guard --

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt., (Oct. 29, 2021) – The lineage of the Vermont Air National Guard goes back to 1942 with a storied history of always being ready for any challenge, with incredible support from home.

When America was in need during World War II, 500 members of the Universal Engineering Co. of Frankenmuth, Michigan, after buying war bonds, donating blood and serving as air wardens, decided to pool their money together.

Their purchase? A P-51 Mustang fighter which was turned over to the U.S. Army Air Forces and assigned to the 530th Fighter Group, predecessor of Vermont’s modern day 134th Fighter Squadron, in the China-Burma-India theater. Named “Spirit of Universal,” it was credited with shooting down eight Japanese planes and damaging a further three over Burma.

Today, with new technology, vast resources and nearly 80 years later but still carrying the lineage of the old 530th Fighter Group, the Green Mountain Boys have been working towards again meeting the nation’s needs.

The Airmen of the Vermont Air National Guard’s 158th Fighter Wing brought all of their preparation to a head at Red Flag, an exercise held at Nellis Air Force Base just outside of Las Vegas.

“We transitioned from the F-16 where we were primarily counter-land fighters,” said Lt. Col. Rocky McRae, the 134th Fighter Squadron commander.

After flying the F-16 for 33 years, the Vermont Air National Guard bid them farewell and welcomed their first two F-35A Lightning II aircraft in 2019, the first, and to date only, Air National Guard wing to have this aircraft.

“So this exercise is really our capstone,” said McRae. “We are about to come out of conversion with the F-35 in the Air National Guard and this is going to prove that we’re ready. We’re coming back to ACC [Air Combat Command] as a premier, fifth generation F-35 squadron.”

The process all began in 2016 when Airmen started “extended active duty” tours to train in various career fields related to the F-35. Three years later in September of 2019, the first two jets arrived at the wing.

The first test of the new aircraft came in February of 2020 when the wing participated in Southern Lightning, a 60 day training exercise held at Eglin Air Force base in Florida. It was the first of multiple trips to Florida for the wing’s Airmen to test their skills.

“This was the first F-35 deployment that the Air National Guard has ever pulled off,” said Lt. Col. Ernest Tomasi, who commanded the 158th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at that time. “It was very nerve wracking at first while we got everything ready but once we hit the ground the team took over, it kind of became that muscle memory.”

The exercise tested the 158th Fighter Wing’s ability to deploy equipment, personnel and aircraft to a forward location. Nearly 100 Airmen and six F-35s departed Vermont to conduct simulated combat operations while construction was taking place back home to get the base ready for more jets.

Following the success of moving resources to Florida and conducting operations there, the wing followed it up with Northern Lightning at Volk Field, Wisconsin, in August. There, the scope of training expanded to include numerous other types of aircraft.

“Northern Lightning is an Air National Guard sponsored exercise that’s really focused on fourth and fifth-gen fighter integration,” said Col. Bart Van Roo, state director of operations for Wisconsin and Northern Lightning director.

The training had the Green Mountain Boys operating and flying alongside F-22 Raptors and T-38 Talons from the 1st Fighter Wing, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia; F/A-18E Super Hornets from VFA-151, Naval Air Station Lemoore, California and F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 115th Fighter Wing, Wisconsin Air National Guard.

Lt. Col. Tony Marek who commanded the 134th Fighter Squadron at the time, said the flying exercises they did at Northern Lightning continued the wing on its path of meeting requirements to complete conversion. He also highlighted the fact they got to work in a joint in environment with other branches of the military.

“That’s the way we actually deploy,” Marek said. “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.”

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic which had emerged early in the year, Marek emphasized that training timelines for the wing to be mission ready had been established years prior and that it was important they continued to move forward.

Flying sorties of eight aircraft twice a day, Lt. Col. Adam Nichols, current commander of the 158th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, said it was training they couldn’t simulate back home in Vermont.

With all 12 F-35s not missing a flight, backed up by 250 Airmen, doubling what was involved at Southern Lightning, Nichols emphasized “our road to combat” was heading in the right direction as the wing again met all training requirements.

There was still more to come, as Marek said Northern Lightning was just the half way point on their path through conversion.

“I know it’s a challenging time for a lot of folks, but the fact that we can all come together, execute this high level only halfway through conversion and have fun doing it, it’s been awesome to see,” he said.