Road to Combat: Part II

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Ryan Campbell
  • 158th Fighter Wing

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (Nov. 19, 2021) – Going into the fall of 2020, normal life for most people was at a complete standstill due to COVID-19, including life in the National Guard.

With many personnel working from home and Airmen of the Vermont Air National Guard conducting their drills virtually, there was still a landmark event to prepare for.

On October 14, 2020 the final F-35A Lightning II to be assigned to the 158th Fighter Wing arrived in Burlington, bringing it to it’s full complement of 20 assigned aircraft, 13 months after the first aircraft arrived.

“We’re the only Air National Guard unit in the country to hold this distinction at this time and that is due the talent of the crew here and the unwavering support of families and this great community,” said Col. David Shevchik, commander of the 158th who flew the final jet from Lockheed Martin’s facility in Ft. Worth, Texas, to Vermont.

The flight line was lined with Green Mountain Boys as Shevchik continued saying, “today marks another milestone and it also presents a clear reminder of the awesome responsibility that we’ve all been entrusted with.”

As 2020 came to a close, the 158th prepared to train in Florida once again in January of 2021, this time to Tyndall Air Force Base for the Combat Weapons Systems Evaluation Program where they would be implementing live munitions into F-35 training for the first time.

“It’s a great place to fly here in the panhandle of Florida,” said Lt. Col. Tony Marek, who commanded the wing’s 134th Fighter Squadron at the time.

More than 150 Airmen took part in the two week training which verified and validated the performance of the 158th Fighter Wing's F-35 weapons systems.

“We’re here as part of our conversion timeline, we’re going to execute live air to air missile employment,” he continued.

According to Marek, the exercise also gave the wing’s munitions Airmen a chance to build and load live missiles onto the aircraft.

“We’ll shoot 11 total missiles while we’re down here against both small scale and large scale drones,” he explained.

Some of the targets the pilots shot at were manned aircraft converted to drones. The F-16 Fighting Falcon, controlled from the ground, was one such aircraft the F-35s engaged.

“These jets are going over the gulf and the first aircraft we shot down was actually a RC F-16,” said Staff Sgt. Joe Payea, a dedicated crew chief assigned the 158th Maintenance Group.

“This missile shoot itself isn’t just the missile shoot, it’s a full team effort,” said 1st Lt. Zachari Mertes, a pilot assigned to the 134th Fighter Squadron. “You have to get the missile loaded up to the right station, make sure all the codes and everything is right, make sure the airspace is open and me hitting the pickle button is just a small moment of everyone doing their job correctly every single time.”

When the time came to engage one of the drone F-16s, Mertes said he got called up on the first line, which meant he personally got to fire the missile from his jet.

“I feel like I was called up to the show, the big leagues, and to be selected to shoot this missile and have the responsibility to execute when I need to execute and have the trust from’s something you take don’t lightly,” said Mertes.

In the midst of the ongoing training at home and at bases around the country, in June of 2021 the Green Mountain Boys celebrated their 75th anniversary and the August 14, 1946 federal recognition of the 134th Fighter Squadron.

“Over the last three quarters of a century, the Air Guard has been a shining example of the dedication and devotion Vermonters have to our nation, her people and the democratic principles in which it was founded,” said Phil Scott, the governor of Vermont.

The ceremony was also the first time in a year and a half that the wing was able to come together over a drill weekend due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Combat training also continued into June, as F-16s and Airmen from the 20th Fighter Wing from Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, arrived. The exercise was based around simulating a deployed environment with minimal personnel to support operations.

Together, the two wings trained in missions targeting enemy air defenses. Suppression of enemy air defenses, or “wild weasel” as it is referred to, will be the primary mission of the 158th Fighter Wing.

Lt. Col. John MacRae, current commander of the 134th Fighter Squadron, said the Airmen from Shaw Air Force Base brought “years of SEAD experience and knowledge that will benefit the Green Mountain Boys as we prepare for more advanced fifth generation training.”

There wouldn’t be long to wait however, as the Airmen of the 158th Fighter Wing would very soon be heading for the Las Vegas desert to be immersed in their capstone training exercise and the culmination of years of F-35 training.