Red Flag 12-3 – A Different Perspective

Once again, US Air Force units from around the country and coalition forces from around the world gathered at Nellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas, Nevada to participate in Red Flag 12-3. Participants of Red Flag 12-3 included various fighter, bomber, tanker, electronic support units, from various branches of service, and coalition aircraft from the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal Air Force.

During three days in mid-March 2012, Nellis AFB Public Affairs hosted 40 media members from around the world in several different venues. Venues that allowed some media members to get a different perspective of the Red Flag exercise. For me, these venues would include a photo shoot from the control tower and northern EOR (end of the runway), a panel interview with some of the participating units commanding officers, a photo shoot with E-2D Hawkeye, and lastly a flight in a KC-135R for an aerial refueling mission.

Day 1 (March 14, 2012) – Runway, Control Tower, and EOR Photo Shoot

Day 1 started with the Red Flag traditional photo shoot between the two active runways. The runway photo shoot is the staple of the Red Flag media day and frankly never gets old. Where else in the world can you stand literally next to a Strike Eagle taking off in full after burner or see both the latest in aircraft technology – F-22 Raptor or B-2 Sprit or the oldest – the KC-135Rs, during flight operations!

We arrived at the runways by noon and a short while later, aircraft started to depart. First the heavies consisting of KC-135Rs, E-3 AWACS, etc. and then the fighters launched. The launch itself is a choreographed event due to mission commanders wanting certain aircraft at specific coordinates at exact times. During a Red Flag launch, eighty plus aircraft are launched in less than an hour or one aircraft every 45 seconds.

One by one, aircraft from the United States Air Force, United States Navy, the Royal Air Force, and the Royal Australian Air Force departed. All the departing aircraft were headed for the Nevada Test and Training Ranges or NTTR. The NTTR is considered one, if not the best, live fire range in the world. It is the size and capabilities of the NTTR coupled with the superior training curriculum that brings air forces from around the world to Nellis and Red Flag.

VX-1 E-2D Hawkeye departs in style!

The highlight of the launch, was the US Navy’s E-2D Hawkeye from Air Test and Evaluation Squadron One (VX-1) from Patuxent River, Maryland. The Hawkeye started his take off roll, rotated, quickly retracted his landing gear, and then zoomed down the runway at what looked like twenty 20 feet off the deck! Needless to say if was beyond impressive!

During the departure phase, Nellis Public Affairs Specialist Ben Newell asked me if I wanted to go to the control tower and photograph the remaining portion of the departure. It took me about 2.6 seconds to say YES! I thought it would be a great opportunity to cover the remaining part of the departures from this rarely visited vantage point. Fifteen minutes later, I was up on the tower with two other media members shooting the rest of the departure cycle.

The only down side to the tower photo-shoot was that I was short on lens range. I had 420mm and from what I experienced, a minimum of 500mm is necessary. With that said, despite the lack of what I considered the proper equipment, the view and experience was awesome.

A “global perspective” of a Red Flag launch – 4 Eagles taxiing, 4 Raptors in the EOR, and a solo F-22 taking off.

From a tradition ground view in between the runways, I had only a one-dimensional view of the Red Flag launch. From the control tower, I was able to get a “global view” of the launch cycle. A global view that stretched from one end of Nellis to the other. At one point I counted, 15 plus F-15 Eagles on the taxiways heading towards their assigned runways. At the peak of the launch cycle, I could see aircraft taxing from one end of the airfield to the other. It was from this platform, that the enormity and logistical complexity of Red Flag hit me. To get this amount of aircraft prepared for a strike, involving hundreds of aircrews and a greater number of operational, maintenance, logistical, and support personnel is almost beyond imagination.

A Royal Air Force GR4 Tornado from No. 2 Squadron taxies out for the Red Flag launch.

A Royal Australian Air Force 75th Squadron (70th anniversary paint scheme) F/A-18 Hornet seen departing from the control tower.

Once the launch sequence had concluded, we had a little less than two hours before the recovery cycle started. One of the media members that had been with us on the tower, had to return to his station to process his material for an upcoming TV broadcast. This turned out to be another opportunity to view Red Flag, from yet another nontraditional point of view – The EOR (end of the runway). The EOR or “last chance” is a term referring to a place at the end of a taxiway, before the pilot(s) move onto the runway. It is on the EOR where maintenance personnel conduct final aircraft checks and arm the weapons systems.

Once we arrived at the northern EOR, we were able to photograph, not only aircraft recovering from the Red Flag exercise, but also other aircraft not directly associated with the Red Flag exercises that were departing for various training flights. These aircraft included F-16s from the 64thAggressor Squadron (64 AGRS) in various camouflage paint schemes.

A 64th Aggressor Squadron F-16 get a final “prep” by ground crew in the EOR.

Six F-16s fresh from the EOR, await take-off.

A B-2 Sprit “The Sprit of Hawaii” returns from a Red Flag mission.

After photographing the Red flag fighter’s recovery, my fellow media member and I returned to the main runways and joined the remaining photographers who were shooting the recoveries. With the tower and EOR opportunities, I had missed the launches of the two B-2 Sprits. However, as luck would have it, we returned to the runways just in time to catch the “heavies” (which included the B-2s) recover and taxi back to the ramp. Frankly, the B-2s aren’t the most dynamic aircraft to see take off and/or land (when compared to an F-15E). With that said, I don’t know if there is a more awe-inspiring aircraft on the planet the begs to have it’s picture taken.

Day 2 (March 15, 2012) – Panel Interview and E-2D Hawkeye Photo Shoot

On the schedule for day two was the panel interview that would consist of a representative from the attending units at Red Flag and a photo shoot of the E-2D. The panel interview was held in the Thunderbird facility auditorium for eight members of the media. After panel member introductions, the discussion was started off with a Red Flag Exercise presentation from the Deputy Commander of the 414th Combat Training Squadron Lieutenant Colonel Camron “Glover” Dadgar.  During Lieutenant Colonel Dadgar’s presentation, he talked about the following:

Red Flag’s genesis was due to the decreasing success rates of US air assets following the Korean War. During the Korean War, the United States enjoyed a 10 to 1 loss ratio of aircraft during air-to-air combat. That ratio decreased in future conflicts. In attempts to identify the cause of our poor success rate, especially in Southeast Asia, the Air Force conducted lengthy studies call the “Red Baron Reports.” The Navy conducted a similar study called the Ault Report.  

From the Red Baron reports were recommendations. One of which was the development of a “Professional Adversary Force” that would train in a realistic threat environment. The Red Baron report also discovered that most mission failures or fatal flaws were occurring on the first ten combat sorties. Red Flag aims to expose aviators to these ten sorties in a simulated threat environment.   

Red Flag has three main mission points. One, training in a realistic threat environment that will best help young aviators, space, and cyber warriors. Second, training in a cross-domain – translated air/space/cyber disciplines are training together and are fully integrated with one another. Lastly, the support and involvement of our joint/coalition partners. Since 1975, 28 countries have participated in Red Flag.

Red Flag would not be the success that it is with the Nevada Test and Training Ranges (NTTR).  Seventy five percent of the bombs dropped in training by the USAF are dropped on the NTTR. The NTTR is 150 miles wide and almost 160 miles long. The NTTR goes from ground level to 50,000 feet and includes terrain ranging from flat desert to mountainous regions. This allows aircrews to get terrain masking as well as high attitude training. The NTTR has realistic targets and are defended by a professional adversary force. This allows a mission commander to use their 100 plus aircraft to defeat a Red Force with a sense of realism that cannot be found anywhere in the world.

Lieutenant Colonel Dadgar ended his presentation with, “I am happy to spread the Red Flag word. It’s a bundle of goodness for not only the United States Forces, but combat forces across the world.”     

As with any training exercise there is a debrief that generates lessons learned, “how can we do this better,” and the breaking of bad habits discussion and review. All designed with one of Red Flag core missions – Getting young aviators through their first ten combat sorties in a simulated threat environment.

Lieutenant Colonel Dadgar concluded his presentation with how Red Flag is critique and evaluated. In addition to an internal review and auditing of their curriculum, Red Flag has been paid some very high compliments several of which had been published in Aviation Week and Space Technology. One was from Air Force General William Shelton of Air Force Space Command – “I never thought I would see this level of integration in my career.” Other feedback that demonstrates Lieutenant Colonel Dadgar and his staff are on the right track was a comment from a recent Air National Guard unit that attended Red Flag – “we’re better now, than we were three weeks ago!”

Red Flag now rotates between two and three week evolutions. According to Lieutenant Colonel Dadgar the three-week course is optimum in terms of getting the aircrews their ten pre-combat sorties Red Flag desires. “It takes a week just to figure it out,” said Lieutenant Colonel Dadgar. But, the downside is that attending students and support personnel are away from home, family, and duty stations for the better part of six weeks which adds increased stress on an already stress filled/high tempo course.

Lieutenant Colonel Dadgar’s presentation was followed by a panel interview of the coalition forces participating in Red Flag 12-3. These representatives included Royal Australian Air Force 75th Squadron (flying F-18 Hornets) Commander Phillip “Hog” Harms and his maintenance officer Flying Officer David Statham and from the Royal Air Force No.2 Squadron (flying GR4 Tornados) Commander Scott “Nox” Williams and one of his maintenance officers Warrant Officer Andy McKie.

First, Commander Harms (attending his first Red Flag) fielded questions from the media and said the following regarding how his 20+ year old legacy Hornets were performing against aircraft with newer technology:

“Very well!” Each time we participate in Red Flag, we are challenged to the point we think we are going to break. Each time we come back and prove that our survivability and lethality is still there and that the exercise is the most invaluable training anywhere in the world.

The Royal Australian Air Force is performing everything from air to air with F-15s and F-22s to precision strike. When asked what was one of the biggest challenges of Red Flag he said:

Squeezing ourselves into a very small airspace with 100 aircraft in a 40 mile corridor!” 75th Squadron brought 140 personnel to fly, operate, and maintain 24 Hornets. We even brought one chaplain, because it was Las Vegas!

Next, Commander Williams fielded questions and said the following regarding the overall mission of the Royal Air Force attending Red Flag:

We are flying various roles including air to air, air to ground, close air support, and suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD). The keys to success in a combat environment flying a 30+ year-old aircraft are upgrades. You have to upgrade the avionics, weapon systems, and training. Red Flag is the perfect theater to test and evaluate those upgrades.

In addition to the challenges of flying a 30-year aircraft, some newer RAF crews are dropping live ordnance for the first time in their career. In addition, junior flight crews are getting opportunities to attend Red Flag, something once attended by only senior aircrews. The RAF wants all aircrews, especially if they are deploying to Afghanistan, to reap the all the training and experience of Red Flag.

After the coalition units spoke, the “Blue Force” unit representatives took their seats on the panel for some “Q and A” from the media. Units attending the panel interview were B-2 Pilot Major Chris Diller, VX-1 E-2D Advanced Hawkeye Operational Test Director Lieutenant Commander Greg “Barky” Harkins, VQ-1 EP-3 Orion pilot Lieutenant Commander Todd “Dewey” Duez, KC-135 pilot Major Darren Spencer, and KC-135 maintenance officers Second Lieutenant Gaydosh and First Lieutenant McCreary.

First Lieutenant Commander Harkins spoke regarding the performance of the E2-D Advanced Hawkeye:

Red Flag has been a great opportunity to take advantage of a cross section of a large group of air assets in a realistic threat environment. This type of exposure and experience is needed before we do “fleet introduction.” We are conducting large force strikes and Red Flag has exceeded our expectations. This is our first opportunity to track targets in a varsity level game.   

Major Diller was next to speak and talked about his experiences as a sophomore student at Red Flag flying the B-2:

This is my second Red Flag and on my first “Flag” I was new to the jet (B-2) and was struggling to “hang on.” On my second Red Flag, I had more situational awareness (S/A), integrating with our Navy brethren, and had the opportunity to lead a strike package. Red Flag continually challenges us.

Next, Lieutenant Commander Duez briefly talked about the P-3 Orion.

We have been very successful in our Red Flag attendance. The P-3 loves to fly, despite being a 50-year-old airframe.

Lastly, Major Spencer spoke about the Boeing KC-135.

The “135” airframe turns 60 next year and I am impressed by her reliability. Our maintainers do an incredible job keeping these aircraft flying and mission ready day in and day out. We brought a lot of young crews coupled with a small amount of parts, tools, and equipment to test our sustainability. As one of the “135” said, “she isn’t the youngest girl at the party, but she still looks good!”  

The panel interview was concluded with the “Red Force” unit representatives fielding questions from the attending media. Fielding these questions were 65th Aggressor Squadron Commander Lieutenant Colonel Paul “Huge” Johnson and Team Chief Major John “Nuke” Gallemore. First Lieutenant Colonel Johnson spoke regarding his aggressors and how he fly’s his F-15:

We recently painted one of our Eagles in a SU-35 paint scheme. Most of our jets (F-15s) were built in 1978, however, since I arrived here in 2008, we are integrating on a much higher level. How we fly the Eagle is scenario driven. If it’s a scenario that requires an advanced aircraft, he’ll fly with more skills and more aircraft capabilities. If the scenario requires a less advanced aircraft and/or pilot skills, he will down grade his skills and aircraft capabilities.” 

Major Gallemore was asked about being a Team Chief and he said the following:

Basically I am the project officer who over sees and coordinates visiting units and scenario development of the exercises.

The panel interview was followed by a trip to the E-2D Hawkeye ramp. Before Red Flag, I had contacted the Air Test and Evaluation Squadron One (VX-1) staff and made a request to photograph their Hawkeyes and speak with an E-2D aircrew. My contact was Lieutenant Commander Greg “Barky” Harkins who is the E-2D Operational Test Director. Lieutenant Commander Harkins gave me some incredible access during my ramp shoot of the VX-1 Hawkeyes.

See the related story – The First Deployment of E-2D Hawkeye to Red Flag 12-3 for further details regarding a complete look at the newest Hawkeye’s first visit to Red Flag.

Day 3 (March 16, 2012) – Meeting Col. Peck and Aerial Refueling on KC-135R

The final day of Red Flag (for media) was a scheduled flight on a KC-135R for an aerial refueling mission. Before the flight, I was fortunate enough to join fellow photojournalist Joe Kates, Dave Budd, and aviation legend – United States Air Force Colonel Gaillard “Evil” Peck (Ret.) for lunch. For those that don’t know the name, don’t be embarrassed, I didn’t either.

Colonel Peck, was a graduate of the 4th Air Force Academy Class (1962), became a fighter pilot, flew 163 combat missions in Vietnam (flying F-4D Phantom), and is most well known for developing the “Constant Peg” training program. Declassified in 2006, Constant Peg trained USAF pilots to fly captured or otherwise acquired MiGs. This allowed aircrews of the USAF, US Navy, and US Marine Corps, to be more effective in fighting the aircraft of the Soviet Union. Colonel Peck has written a book on Constant Peg – “America’s Secret MiGs Squadron” that will be available in July 2012. To say it was an honor and privilege to meet Colonel Peck and hear his story is an understatement. Colonel Peck was incredibly gracious and open with us while talking about his career and I can’t wait for his book to be released.

At 1:00pm, I joined fellow media members at Base Operations and waited for our flights. There, media members were divided into 2 groups. One group was scheduled for the KC-135R that would be refueling the “Blue Force” or friendlies (this would include F-15s and F-22s). The other group, in a separate “135” would be refueling the “Red Forces” or enemy force aircraft consisting of F-16s from the 64th Aggressor Squadron (64 AGRS) and F-15s from the 65th Aggressor Squadron (65 AGRS).

I was able to choose what flight (Red or Blue) I would fly with and I chose Blue. I chose Blue because I had previously flown with the Red Force tanker and shot the 64th Aggressors. On this flight, I wanted the opportunity to get photographs of the Eagles and Raptors. There would be four media members per refueler. According to the mission briefing, we were schedule to refuel six aircraft consisting of F-15Es Strike Eagles from Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, Oregon Air National Guard F-15s, and F-22 Raptors from Langley Air Force Base, Virginia.

Soon, it was time to board my KC-135R. My Boeing refueler was built in 1963 (a year before I was born) and was assigned to the 6th Air Mobility Wing 927th Air Refueling Wing at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. Flying our nearing 50-year-old refueler was Lieutenant Colonel Mike “Cosmo” Babyak (who has 5,700 hours in the KC-135) and First Lieutenant Dan Payne. Our call sign for today’s flight was “Baja 35.” Once on board, Staff Sergeant Corey Dufresne (from Massena, New York) gave us a safety brief and general flight protocol. Staff Sergeant Dufresne enlisted in the Air Force in 2006 and would also be our boom operator for the flight.

At 1:45 pm, our KC-135 started its engines, soon taxied to the runway, and then took off. Thirty minutes after take off, “Baja 35” was on station and ready to start refueling. When we first arrived on-station, pilots Lieutenant Colonel Babyak and First Lieutenant Payne flew a racetrack pattern 28 miles long by 18 miles wide and at an altitude of 20,000 feet.

As with my first air refueling, I was so excited (like a kid in a 20,000 foot candy store) when our first aircraft (a single F-15C from Oregon Air National Guard) arrived on station, I almost forgot to take pictures! I was only able to get “side window shots” because the first group of media was down in the “boomer’s den.”

An Oregon Air National Guard F-15C on the wing of Baja 35, awaiting his turn on the boom.

The boomer’s den is the area at the bottom rear of the aircraft where the boom operator, or in our case Staff Sergeant Dufresne, lays flat on his stomach and controls all aspects of the in-flight refueling cycle, including “flying the boom” to the receiving aircraft.

My view of an Oregon Air Guard Eagle from the boomer’s dens. Thank you United States Air Force!

I moved back and forth between the two windows that provided the best angles on the Oregon Air Guard Eagle flying formation on our left wing. Moving back and forth between windows proved something of a challenge because of the large rollers (imagine 6 inch diameter metal rolling pins) that were mounted to the floor. The rollers are used for moving pallets within the aircraft. Despite shooting pictures out of a ten-inch by ten-inch windows that were probably older than I was, I was able to get some great pictures of the Oregon Air Guard F-15. Plus, and more importantly, photos or no photos, it just plain cool to see a F-15 Eagle flying what looked like inches off our left wing!

A Langley Raptor on the wing of Baja 35.

My priceless view of our F-22.

About 30 minutes later, a F-22 was on our left wing, waiting for his time on the boom. Because the Raptors refueling receptacle is mid-fuselage, the F-22, from front screen forwards, is underneath the KC-135 as it refuels and makes getting photographs challenging.  One has to become a contortionist in in the boomer’s den in order to get any worthwhile photographs of the Raptor, or for that matter, any aircraft.

Our last scheduled refueling was a pair of F-15E Strike Eagles from Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. However, due to the deteriorating weather, our aircrew had to search the skies for a clear patch in order to refuel the Mountain Home Eagles. Our pilots were finally able to find an area at 27,000 feet where the weather was acceptable and our final refueling process would be able to take place.

A Mountain Home AFB F-15E Strike Eagle getting gas!

Soon after arriving at our new altitude, two dark grey shapes made their way out of the dark clouds from behinds us and off to the left. These were our final customers for the day. Both Strike Eagles formed up on our left wing and then one aircraft quickly slid underneath us and made his way to the boom. His wingman remained flying formation off our left wing. Within a few minutes, it was his turn on the boom and my turn in the boomers den.

As with my first air refueling experience, I found this to be just as exhilarating and scary! Yes, scary. The scared factor has nothing to do with the air refueling process, or the fact that you have two aircraft within a car length or so of each other. It has to do with shooting photographs in such small, confirmed, awkward spaces, I am scared to death I’ll bump the boomer and cause him to “drive the boom into an aircraft.” Thus sealing my fate and reputation as a military aviation journalist! Safe to say, I got my photographs and no mishaps occurred!

During the down time in between refueling, Staff Sergeant Dufresne allowed me to take a turn at “flying the boom.” The boom is essentially a 40-foot long telescoping metal tube with what I call small (controllable) wings at the end. The boom is controlled or flown by the boom operator. The “boomer” basically fly’s the boom to the receiving aircraft through a joystick.

So, there I was lying on my stomach, my chin on the chin rest, and Staff Sergeant Dufresne providing me with direction. First, I noticed the joystick looked every bit of 60 years old, as did the overall boomer workstation. I was amazed that such a complex task as aerial refueling was done and has been done with 1950-1960s era technology. Despite the lack of technology, boomers, like Staff Sergeant Dufresne, day in and day out are refueling aircraft in a wide variety of conditions and environments.

My new BFF – Staff Sergeant Corey Dufresne.

Staff Sergeant Dufresne talked me through the flying of the boom, giving me feedback, and providing direction as I flew the boom left and right and up and down. As I flew this boom, I couldn’t imagine the skill and nerves of steel it takes to “plug the receptacle” in a 187 million dollar F-22 or a F-15E Strike Eagle in poor weather over the hostile skies of Afghanistan.

Lieutenant Colonel Mike Babyak and First Lieutenant Dan Payne on short final to Nellis.

After being airborne for almost three hours, it was time to return to Nellis. During our mission, we refueled six aircraft and transferred 44,000 pounds of fuel. I was fortunate enough to secure the jumpseat in the cockpit during the landing cycle. From there, I was able to see Lieutenant Colonel Babyak and First Lieutenant Payne go through pre-landing checklists and land our 100,000+ pound Boeing refueler safely back at Nellis AFB.

The crew of Baja 35 (left to right) – Lieutenant Colonel Mike “Cosmo” Babyak, Staff Sergeant Corey Dufresne, and First Lieutenant Dan Payne

Red Flag 12-3 provided me with outstanding opportunities to experience the exercise from what I thought were very different perspectives. None of this would have been possible without the exceptional support of the Public Affairs Office led by Major Mae-Li Allison – Public Affairs Director. Her staff that helped make these opportunities possible were Captain Teresa Sullivan, First Lieutenant Laura Balch, Airman First Class Whitney Jackson, and Public Affairs Specialist Ben Newell. A very special thanks to Ben Newell (tower and EOR escort) and First Lieutenant Balch     (E-2D Hawkeye photo shoot escort) for their patience and support in getting me the access I requested and spending those extra hours making sure I received the access I needed. Without their efforts, this article would not have been possible.

Phil Myers

Phil Myers, a military aviation photojournalist with a passion for telling stories and documenting the history of military aviation. In addition to his website publications, Phil’s articles and photographs have been published in several magazines. Phil resides in Southern California.

You may also like...