JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Leaving the heat, humidity and rain of the south and heading north for cooler temperatures, the 815th Airlift Squadron (AS) put their Reserve Citizen Airmen to the test in Alaska with both the temperatures and the terrain, July 13-16.
Working with the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team Airborne, 25th Infantry Division, the 815th AS provided airlift for more than over 1300 paratroopers for three days, as well as airdrops for heavy equipment on the fourth day during a training exercise at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
“Being able to operate effectively and efficiently in multiple climates and in different types of terrain is an important part of our training,” said Maj. George Metros, 815th AS instructor pilot and exercise mission commander.
Hauling cargo, conducting airdrop and airlift is the mission of the 815th AS, the Flying Jennies, but their training is normally performed in locations similar to their home station at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. using the C-130J Super Hercules aircraft.
Metros said they are used to working in places like Fort Polk, Louisiana, Fort Benning, Georgia and Pope AFB, North Carolina.
“Being able to come up here to JBER, to work with the 3rd Wing using their facilities, plus airdrop a unit that we haven’t dropped a whole lot in the past, the 4/25th IBCT (A), and to do that at a location away from home station in a new terrain for us is an excellent exercise training opportunity,” said Metros.
The terrain in Alaska presented a new challenge for the pilots and loadmasters to tackle. The mountains and valleys provide different types of training scenarios and there are more areas to train in.
“The training up here is dynamic,” said Metros. “We essentially deployed a whole package of folks from across the 403rd Wing, from the 36th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, our Maintenance Group, to our support staff; to come train in an area that is outside of their comfort zone and their normal operations.”
Another major difference for the 815th AS was the Army’s restricted range area in Alaska, this is a special air space reserved just for the military to use, which the 815th AS does not have available to them in Biloxi.
“Having this special use air space that we can fly into it and we are the only users, makes conducting training operations easier and allows us to accomplish more training opportunities,” said Metros. “We are able to fly into it to drop the heavy equipment, do airdrop operations and do landing zone operations without worrying about someone coming into our airspace.”
Part of those airdrop operations included personnel drops.
Army Lt. Col. Justin Pritchard, 6th Brigade Engineer Battalion (Airborne) commander, said that his battalion participated in the personnel drops, deploying about 450 ‘chutes (parachutes) on both the 14th and 16th of July.
“Frankly, having the 815th here has helped with our proficiency,” said Pritchard. “I was able to jump my assault command post twice this week and all of my companies were able to conduct a tactical assembly. And for us repetition greatly improves our proficiency, so it has been great in that regard.”
Pritchard said that they don’t get that many C-130 jumps up here, mostly C-17s (Globemaster III), and sometimes they are limited to either one jump a month or every other month.
“This week has been a good week,” he said. “I have had at least half of my soldiers jump twice, while the others jumped at least once.”
Having completed a jump Wednesday and then coming back again to conduct a second jump Friday, Pritchard said having two airborne operations on different days, allowed them to see how they improved throughout the week.
“Friday was much better with preparation in working with the Air Force in particular,” Pritchard said. “As far as interoperability between us, and making sure we are saying the same things, by understanding each other’s terms, I could see that we were more organized than we were on Wednesday.”
Pritchard’s battalion also provided the heavy drops for flights on July 15th.
While the Flying Jennies routinely load heavy equipment, conduct combat off-loads, and even do some heavy drops during their normal home station training, they don’t often get the opportunity to drop heavy equipment.
“We don’t necessarily get to do heavy equipment airdrops like this, we often load Humvees up quite a bit at home,” said Capt. Leesa Froelich, 815th AS pilot and the training exercise deputy mission commander. “But we don’t normally get to drop the Humvees, and being able to airdrop them on the parachutes is different and great training for us.”
During the training exercise they airdropped over 30,000 pounds of equipment, something they wouldn’t be able to do back at home, said Master Sgt. Jonathan Parker, 815th AS loadmaster and the exercise Joint Airborne/Air Transportablility Training noncommissioned officer in charge.
Another challenge they faced was the assault landing zone in Alaska, which is completely different from the dirt assault strips they normally use.
“Assault strips vary wherever you go and doing the assault landings here on the rock surface was different,” said Froelich. “This terrain presented another type of challenge, because we had to make sure that we didn’t use too much reverse to keep the rocks from going into the props and causing damage.”
The pilots and loadmasters also completed another training objective: low-level tactical flying.
This type of flying is used to provide an effective tactic in training for hostile environments, but the terrain in South Mississippi tends to be over flat, wooded areas or over wetland areas.
“Alaska provided the opportunity for us to experience low-level flight training through a challenging mountainous terrain,” said Capt. Michael Plash, 815th AS pilot. “The terrain, aircraft performance, crew fatigue, airspace environment, and weather were all considerations our crews had to account for.”
The Jennies are used to dealing with the hot, humid Mississippi weather. This exercise gave them another challenge of having to deal with the dry, cool mountain air of Alaska.
“We would like to see the 815th AS come back, in particular in the winter time too,” said Pritchard. “Because the more often we can jump, the readier we will be in order to support any combatant commander world-wide when asked to jump in and seize an airfield and achieve any missions they give us.”
According to Lt. Col. Matthew Sikkink, 815th AS commander, the winter months would be a little more challenging, because these planes don’t normally operate in the Arctic environment.
“The winter months would be a challenge that we would not pass up,” said Sikkink. “Because with more training and early preparation for the Arctic environment both for the crews and the planes, I think we could definitely overcome that challenge. It would just have to be on a smaller scale for the first one.”
In just four days of flying, the Flying Jennies completed many training objectives of more than 15 assault landings and approximately eight hours of low-level tactical flying hours. Plus the mutual training of personnel and heavy equipment drops that the Army needed.
“This is a great relationship that we have built with the 4/25th IBCT (A) and I think we have a bright future with them. They were able to provide us, a Reserve squadron, with specific types of support that we can’t get in our local training area,” said SIKKINK.
“I think overall this training exercise was a resounding success and we’d like to try and come back next year.”