JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- What once was a four-strip, prepared airfield during World War II now sits overgrown and unused, with only two unimproved landing surfaces at Tinian, Northern Mariana Islands. Now a tourist attraction, North Field is as close as Landing Zone Officers (LZOs) get to practicing establishing and operating a landing zone in an austere environment.
In early March, the 3rd Operations Support Squadron (OSS) at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) sent personnel to participate in Exercise Agile Reaper 23-1 under the 3rd Air Expeditionary Wing to test their capabilities in an environment unlike home-station. And for the first time ever in Alaska, on March 23, the 3rd OSS took those same concepts and applied them to a landing zone training scenario to integrate LZOs and cargo aircraft pilots at their home-station airfield.
“Landing Zone Officers speak for the senior airfield authority, which is often the Joint Forces Air Component Commander in contingency environments, and ensure safe and effective ops at these locations,” said Capt. Daniel Brownley, the director of operations for the 3rd OSS Airfield Operations Flight. “There are specialists within the Air Force in the Contingency Response Group who do this kind of work. They pull air traffic controllers and airfield managers to run landing strips in austere environments and train them up. It’s a long, rigorous training program to get them doing what they do out there but they often return to the career field to never use it again. Our goal is to adapt the CRG skillset so we can augment the Air Force’s contingency capabilities in a way that is sustainable within the Pacific Air Forces.”
AR 23-1 allowed LZOs from JBER to put their homegrown skills into practice, testing their capabilities to support both fighter and cargo aircraft in contingency environments.
“Being that we’re in Alaska, we don’t get a lot of opportunities to have a working landing zone with the ground frozen and snowed over eight months out of the year,” said Tech. Sgt. Steven “Tepp” Tepperberg, a landing zone safety officer assigned to the 3rd OSS. “We took the opportunity [at Tinian] to train a few of our airfield ops Airmen and completed 12 low passes with a C-17 to get them qualified.”
After certifying three Airmen during AR 23-1, Tepperberg returned to JBER to support the Airfield Operations Flight in its efforts to accomplish similar training on Elmendorf’s own runway, known as LZ Friday.
“The “LZ Friday" event was the first time LZOs participated in Air Force airfield LZ ops here in Alaska, and we saw it as a springboard toward a recurring event that integrates more home-station and visiting aircrews into the kind of vital training that prepares us for the great power conflicts of the future,” Brownley said. “As the Air Force pivots from the kind of wars we’ve been fighting the last 20 years and more, to what we now call the great power competition, we want to [capitalize on] the Multi-Capable Airman [framework] as it supports this transition.”
To do that, the 3rd OSS is taking personnel in its three highly technical, enlisted-only career fields – air traffic controllers, airfield managers and radar airfield and weather systems technicians – and certifying them as LZOs to ensure a secure and efficient airfield environment, regardless of location.
“We train each of those three enlisted Air Force Specialty Codes on how to maintain a secure and efficient airfield with maybe just a dirt strip, semi-prepared surface, or maybe it’s a paved strip,” Brownley explained. “Whatever it is, that airfield manager role needs to be played by someone with the goal being to make these three specialties interchangeable, furthering the MCA framework for airfield operations.”
So, what do each of these specialized career fields do? Only within the last decade or so were RAWS technicians brought into the fold, according to Brownley, bringing the specialty codes to three.
Airfield management counter workers start out running daily airfield inspections while also handling coordination like filing flight plans on behalf of the flying units. They act as a liaison for many entities, as they ensure a safe and efficient airfield environment.
“We groom them for that very high-level job from day one,” Brownley said. “By the time you’re an airfield manager you are a liaison of a sort that operates very closely with the operations community. They’re a touchpoint for ops, they also work with the maintenance side, fire department, police and every other airfield user treats them as the go-between to operations.”
They’re also managing construction schedules, coordinating with civil engineers, writing parking plans and coordinating with any outside users of the airfield, Brownley added.
“All that throughput up here from the Air Mobility Command, the 732nd Air Mobility Squadron, it functions somewhat autonomously, but we have to make sure that melds together with a really busy summer exercise schedule and all the locally assigned aircraft we have here,” Brownley said.
Next, air traffic controllers have a narrower scope of responsibility based on Federal Aviation Association regulations.
“In a tower environment, controllers are separating aircraft visually. Remote Final Control Airmen are using radar techniques, and giving constant instructions to pilots every five seconds in order to keep them on glide path,” Brownley said. “The weather in this Anchorage Bowl is hard to describe, and in a very challenging weather environment like this, you end up really needing that five-second interval, whereas at another base with pretty calm conditions it sounds like ‘on course, on glide slope.’ Here it is a lot more dynamic.”
Finally, RAWS technicians fix the equipment that controllers rely on to guide pilots. There are multiple navigational aids that help guide pilots and RAWS Airmen maintain these systems, along with the radio communications systems and airfield weather sensor suites. These aids provide pilots, both military and civilian, with various data to assist in landing, and can also be mobile to support Agile Combat Employment operations in austere environments.
“Part of this is to be able to bring out deployable RAWS equipment and to get a mobile tactical air navigational aid to provide a beacon for aircraft to follow,” Brownley said. “We have to learn just enough about the RAWS technician job, how to set up equipment, and make sure it’s powered up and functioning and all these career fields have an enormous potential to leverage their skillset and help everyone on a small contingency airstrip environment like that.”
Tepperberg echoed this, explaining how they utilized the mobile tactical navigational aid during Exercise Agile Reaper 23-1 while at Tinian.
“We did a rapid relocation exercise where we set up the landing zone at North Field, came down to the airport and loaded [equipment] onto the C-17 and went out to Northwest Field in Guam, did some low passes, came back and did a rapid download of all our equipment,” Tepperberg said.
Whether LZ ops are occurring in austere environments like Tinian, or here in Alaska’s arctic climate, the 3rd OSS continues to validate ACE and MCA through training like this.
“Because PACAF is a fighter-centric major command, our mandate is to adapt the traditional dirt-strip LZ operations that our LZO training has focused on, for longer, straighter, paved strips that can accommodate higher performance aircraft,” Brownley said. “Getting after LZ ops here at Elmendorf allows us to validate the established concepts of Agile Combat Employment and builds on that model to leverage the full range of Air Force capabilities in operational modes that are more dispersed and less predictable.”