NORTHERN LIGHTNING 2021
Photography by Scott Jankowski and Howard German (be sure to click on the thumbnail photos for enlarged photos!)
The skies above Central Wisconsin were once again filled the sights and sounds of aircraft participating in Northern Lightning 2021. The now annual exercise hosted by the Volk Field CRTC (Combat Readiness Training Center) was held from August 9th through August 20th. This year’s world class exercise included approximately 60 aircraft including the Lockheed Martin/General Dynamics F-16 C/D Fighting Falcon, Boeing FA-18F Super Hornets, Boeing EA-18G Growlers, Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II’s and the venerable Northrop T-38C Talon.
Approximately 1,600 service men and women from all branches of the U.S. military participated in this exercise with units coming from Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota, Oregon, South Dakota, Virginia and Wisconsin. The majority of the flying units were based out of Volk Field, with a few units flying out of their home base which made more sense operationally. A total of 6 Air National Guard, 2 Active duty Air Force, 1 Active Duty Navy, 1 Navy Reserve, and 1 Marine Corps units took advantage of the 55×200 mile airspace to practice a variety of different training scenarios. These training scenarios included a mix of air to air and air ground missions flown in a contested environment with adversary aircraft, electronic jamming, and simulated surface-to-air threats. I was invited once again for a closer look at the units flying out of Volk Field for this year’s exercise.
This year’s exercise was very heavy on F-16 participation with no less than 5 units participating from both Air National Guard and active-duty Air Force units. The Colorado Air National Guard’s 120th Fighter Squadron which is part of the 140th Wing is based at the Buckley Colorado Space Force Base was present. The 120th Fighter Squadron was established as the 120th Aero Squadron back in 1917. The 120th Fighter Squadron was the first federally recognized Air National Guard Unit when it received this distinction in June of 1946. The unit’s motto is “First in the Air Guard” and has flown the F-16 since 1992. This units F-16’s were seen in a combination of both the original paint and the new Have Glass paint.
Wisconsin’s very own 176th Fighter Squadron based at the Truax Air National Guard base located at Madison Wisconsin flew out of Volk and its home base. The 176th Fighter Squadron is a unit of the 115th Fighter Wing and was activated as the 306th Fighter Squadron in July of 1942. The 176th’s nickname is the “Badger Air Militia” and has flown the F-16 since 1993 and is scheduled to transition to the F-35 Lightning II in 2023.
Based at the Duluth Minnesota International airport is the Minnesota Air National Guard’s 179th Fighter Squadron which is part of the 148th Fighter Wing. The 179th Fighter Squadron has flown F-16’s since March of 1990 and was first organized as the 393rd Fighter Squadron flying the Bell P-39 Airacobra. The unit is nicknamed “The Bulldogs” and flew from both Volk and its home base of Duluth. This units F-16’s were seen in a combination of both the original paint and the new Have Glass paint.
The final Air National Guard F-16 unit that participated from its home base of Joe Foss Field, Sioux Falls South Dakota was the 175th Fighter Squadron. The 175th is part of the 114th Operations Group which belongs to the South Dakota Air National Guard. The 175th is nicknamed the “Fightin’ Lobos and has flown the F-16 since 1991. This units F-16’s did not operate out of Volk Field for the duration of the 2-week exercise.
The 5th and final F-16 unit was the active duty 422d Test and Evaluation Squadron which had several F-16’s both with and without the typical OT tail code. This units F-16’s were seen in a combination of both the original paint and the new Have Glass paint. The 422d is assigned to the 53d Test and Evaluation Group based at Nellis Air Force Base located outside of Las Vegas Nevada. The unit was originally formed as the 422d Night Fighter Squadron in 1943 flying the Northrop P-61 Black Widow. The unit was deactivated at the end of World War II and reactivated in 1969 to provide combat evaluation and operational testing of new USAF aircraft. The F-16 Division was established in 1980 and in 1997 evaluated and dropped the first live Joint Direct Attack Munition.
One of the most vital parts of the exercise was the Aerial Refueling support provided by the Milwaukee Wisconsin based 128th Air Refueling Wing part of the Wisconsin Air National Guard. The 128th flies the Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker, and has done so since 1991 and was the first Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve unit to fly the “R” model. The 128th operated out its home base and flew two sorties a day.
Once again, this year the role of “Red Air” or adversary was provided by the Joint Base Langley -Eustis Virginia based 71st Fighter Training Squadron. The 71st is nicknamed the “Ironmen” and has flown the Northrop T-38 Talon since 2015, with its primary mission to provide Adversarial Air Training. The 71st was formed back in 1940 as the 71st Pursuit Squadron and was the first unit to fly the Lockheed P-38 in combat during World War II. The 71st is part of the 1st Operations Group of the 1st Fighter Wing.
Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets from Naval Air Station Oceana Virginia based VFA-213 were participants this year. VFA-213 is nicknamed the “Blacklions” and were formed 66 years ago in 1955 as VF-213 flying the McDonnell F-2H Banshee. The squadron was redesignated VFA-213 when the transition to the Super Hornet began in 2006. VFA-213 is currently assigned to Carrier Air Wing 8 and has participated in all recent armed conflicts.
The U.S. Navy Reserve was represented by VAQ-209 based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island Washington, flying the Boeing EA-18G Growler and is part of U.S. Navy Reserve Carrier Air Wing 20. VAQ-209 is nicknamed the Star Warriors and was established in 1977 and completed its transition to the EA-18G in 2014. The unit uses a likeness of the Star Wars character Darth Vader as its mascot and actually received special permission from Lucasfilm to use the name and likeness.
The 5th Generation Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II was represented by the U.S. Marines Corps VMFA-122 based at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma Arizona. VMFA-122 falls under the command of Marine Air Group 13 and 3rd Marine Air Wing and has the nickname of “The Flying Leathernecks”. This unit can trace its lineage back to 1937 as Marine Fighting Squadron 4 based at Naval Air Station San Diego. VMFA-122 transitioned to the F-35B in 2017 with its mission being to intercept and destroy enemy aircraft or surface targets in all weather conditions.
Upon recovery the Hornets, Growlers and Lightnings would stop at the end of the taxiway leading into the ramp area so the groundcrew could check for hot brakes. The process for the Hornets and Growlers was similar, which was a visual inspection of the brakes. The process for the Lightnings was different as the groundcrew used a type of thermal imaging camera.
Northern Lightning participants would typically fly 2 sorties a day, Monday through Friday with no flying on the weekends. The morning launch and recovery would normally occur between 0900-1030 with the afternoon launch and recovery between 1330-1500, this is all dependent on what the mission profile looks like for the day. Northern Lightning is unique in the aspect of what types of missions will be flown, the participating units decide on the types of missions and training they would like to partake in as opposed to everything preplanned and scheduled. This type of flexibility, the unrestricted airspace around Volk Field, the nearby Hardwood Live Fire Range, and the tireless dedication of the hundreds of servicemen, women and civilians will make Northern Lightning a world class exercise for many years to come.
I would like to extend a very big THANK YOU to the entire Public Relations Team at Volk Field for their time and hospitality in making this visit and article possible. Until next time, “Blue Skies to All!”