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The Rediff Special/ Sagar Pathak

Flying in a Sukhoi against the US F-16

August 27, 2008

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It was a month ago that the 12th US Air Force [Images] (AFSOUTH) approached me with a proposal: I could cover the Indian Air Force as they practiced for Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base.

Red Flag is the US Air Force's premier multi-national air-to-air exercise providing aircrews a realistic environment to practice combat scenarios. The experience gained during Red Flag is vital to the survival of pilots in combat.

Red Flag 08-04 is the most diverse event to date -- with participants from a number of nations, including Korea, France [Images], and India.

While the Indian Air Force has participated in many international exercises, Red Flag 08-04 is the first time the IAF will be a major participant in this multi-national event. For it, they brought along eight SU-30 MK-I fighters, two IL-78 mid-air refuelling aircraft and one IL-76 transport aircraft.

Group Captain Ajay Rathore, who led the team, was all praise for Red Flag, asserting it has a training infrastructure unavailable elsewhere in the world.

The IAF had multiple objectives in participating, he said. "Firstly, we want to expose our latest-generation aircraft to the training infrastructure available at Nellis Air Force base. Secondly, it gave us an insight as to how to structure our training areas for the modern weaponry under induction right now. Lastly, there is a lot of network intricacy with the US Air Force, a capability that we would leapfrog to in the times to come."

The idea, he said, is to learn everything possible through participation -- including US procedure and terminology.

The Operations Group found an experienced pilot to fly the aggressive manoeuvres needed to help us get perfect shots. Staff Sergeant Jasmin Reif, my public affairs liaison with the 366th Fighter Wing, got me into the fighter.

By the time I arrived at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, July 28, the IAF had already begun flying practice, familiarizing themselves with the new environment there.

With its large airspace and up to date facilities, this air base is an ideal area for the IAF to train air-to-air manoeuvres.

The 366th Fighter Wing, played host to the 156 IAF personnel and 91 IAF officers (including 10 members of the 'Garud' IAF Special Forces team) -- and USAF airmen worked tirelessly to give the IAF the best training and top-notch support.

It was to capture the novelty of the IAF and USAF working together that I came into the picture. But it took the efforts of the 12th Air Force, the 391st Fighter Squadron (which is part of the 366th Fighter Wing), the 366th FW Public Affairs office and many people at the Air Combat Command Headquarters to get me into the back seat of an F-15E Strike Eagle to capture the momentous occasion.

The IAF's contingent to the United States is comprised of eight top of the line SU-30 MK-I fighters from the No 20 'Lightnings' Squadron of Lohegaon Air Force Station in Pune. These fighters are supported by two IL-78 tankers from No 78 'Valorous MARS' [Images] Squadron of Agra [Images] Air Force Station in Agra, and one IL-76 transporter from the No 44 'Mighty Jets' Squadron of Sonegaon Air Force Station in Nagpur.

Flying alongside the IAF in the Blue Force (playing the 'good guys') are the Mountain Home AFB's 390th Fighter Squadron 'Wild Boars,' flying the F-15C/D, and the 391st Fighter Squadron's 'Bold Eagles,' flying F-15E Strike Eagles. Rounding off the Blue Force were F-15Cs and F-15Es from the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron at Eglin AFB, Florida [Images].

The Red Force (the 'bad guys') or OpFor (Opposing Forces) was made up of F-16s from the 18th Aggressor Squadron at Eielson AFB, Alaska. The IAF specially requested for the 18th Aggressor Squadron because its aircrews wanted to prepare for the intense dogfights at Red Flag.

"Our job as OpFor is to simulate an enemy force similar to that at the actual Red Flag with the standard training rules and similar scenarios," said Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Welsh, commander of the squadron. Living up to their motto -- 'To know, teach and replicate the threat' -- the crews will challenge the IAF and other Blue Forces as they would in actual combat.

Over the week, preparations were underway for the photo shoot with the SU-30 MK-I. Prior to the flight, Base Commander Colonel James Browne and the Operations Group Commander Colonel James J McGovern signed me out to photograph the participants in formation. The paperwork worked its way up the ranks of the US Air Force and gathered the blessings of the 12th Air Force and Air Combat Command before I was finally cleared.

Flying in a two-seat fighter jet is risky, requiring special training and extra attention to emergency procedures. The two main training sessions I had to complete involved ejection training and the use of the parachute harness. Ejection training is unique to every aircraft, and even though I have flown in a fast jet many times before, I still needed to get used to the Eagle.

I watched as the Blue Force of six IAF SU-30 MKI Flankers, two F-15E Strike Eagles from the 391st FS, four F-15C Eagles from the 390th FS, one F-15E and 1 F-15C from the 85th TES, and one IAF IL-78 Midas refueller prepared for a dogfight. The Red Force, made up of six F-16C aircraft from the 18th AGRS tried to stop the Blue Forces from entering their territory to attack high-value targets on the ground.

Once this tactical mission was accomplished, then it was time for the photo shoot. One by one, the individual aircraft finished their missions and formed off our wing. When five aircraft were in the triangular 'delta' formation, we sought a perfect backdrop for our shots.

The cooperation between the aircrews was amazing. Since we had briefed the various shots on the ground, everything went as planned, and the communication between me and those in other aircraft was crisp and clear. Any changes were easily communicated and it was evident that the weeks of flying together had paid off. We then headed the 100 miles to meet the Midas IL-78 tanker and get the SU-30 MKIs fuel. 

This also gave me an opportunity to shoot the IAF tanking. An hour later and after a variety of formations shots, it was time to return to base.

By the time we got back over two hours later, my pilot, Captain Mark 'Buddy' Pauly from the 391st FS had flown me close to each participating aircraft, looped, rolled, and even broken the sound barrier.

It was easy to see the newfound bond between IAF and USAF pilots.

"It has been well worth the deployment," Rathore told me later. "And tomorrow, in case we need to fight somewhere together, we will be able to integrate very well within a short time."

Sagar Pathak, an aviation photographer, runs horizontalrain.com


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