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Recover, re-fuel, re-frag, launch: Multi-Capable Airmen test abilities at ACE exercise

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jack Rodgers and Senior Airman Kayla Barker
  • 419th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

With heat striations rising off the tarmac in the hot Nevada sun, a group of 419th Fighter Wing reservists briskly marched single file across the flightline. Ahead of them, against the backdrop of red mountains, a KC-46A Pegasus tanker sat ready to carry them and their equipment into the air during the wing's May 2024 Annual Tour training.

15 Airmen, selected to conduct Multi-Capable Airmen (MCA) training, and their supervisors spent a week in southern Nevada testing their abilities and broadening their specialties throughout an Agile Combat Employment (ACE) exercise. Leadership chose the members of the small team to participate in the exercise specifically for their ability to operate across multiple Air Force career fields, reducing the personnel required to fuel, arm, and launch four F-35A Lightning II fighter jets.

419th Pilots and exercise coordinators Maj. Lantz Casey and Maj. Joshua Tempel collaborated with leadership across the wing to design a challenging exercise implementing the Air Force's modern ACE strategy, testing the ability to perform under suboptimal conditions in unfamiliar, remote locations. Leaning into this concept, the coordinators incorporated three different maintenance points.

This exercise was unique for the 419th Fighter Wing, which typically integrates with active-duty units during training and exercises. This time, except for the KC-46A crew and aircraft the 388th Fighter Wing provided, the 419th FW trained as if an independent unit of action.

"As we strive to grow our capability in the face of Great Power Competition, we wanted to focus on training that hones the skills needed for wartime operational readiness, "said Col. Ronald Sloma, 419th Fighter Wing Commander. "Developing and training our Airmen is our top priority. It is imperative that we gather lessons learned from these training events to ensure the wing is 'ready now' for whatever threat we face in the future."

With these mission principles at the forefront of planning, the small MCA team was prepared to execute.

As the reservists stepped off the tanker at the first destination of the exercise, Creech Air Force Base, located approximately 50 miles Northwest of Nellis AFB, the Las Vegas skyline was replaced by scattered cacti. The thunder of a squadron of F-35s rolled over the quiet desert as the rubber of their wheels touched the runway behind them.

"The purpose of the contingency location is to recover the jet, refuel the jet, re-frag, and then launch the jet in the shortest amount of time possible," said Capt. Mary Kretzer, Director of Operations, 419th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. "We want to spend as little time as possible on the ground because as soon as they touch down, the potential for things flying at us increases."

As the jets came to a halt, tactical aircraft maintenance specialists, the first Airmen to conduct maintenance, inspected key structures, ensuring the jets would be ready to take flight again. They then moved to fuel and assisted aircraft armament systems Airmen and munitions systems specialists, generally tasked with building ammunition, in uploading weapons onto the aircraft.

"I was definitely nervous at first because you're learning such a different skill set," said Staff Sgt. Lauren Luttges, 419th munitions systems specialist. "It was really cool to be able to see the munitions from conception to the delivery to actually putting it on the aircraft."

With the Nevada sun beating down on them, Airmen in teams of three used the manually operated lift trailer, or MOLT, to hoist missiles up into the belly of the jets. Leadership watched with critical but enthusiastic eyes.

Unlike other fuel-powered equipment, the smaller MOLT was easily loaded onto the KC-46A. The MOLT allowed Airmen to upload weapons without any motor power. As one Airman operated its hand crank, similar to a car jack, two others helped roll the vehicle across the flightline with ammunition securely held in its arm. Its use in the exercise demonstrated the versatility of an older tool used in conjunction with the fifth-generation fighter technology of the F-35A. 

"Down, up, stop!" yelled Master Sgt. Andrew Rapp, Weapons Section Chief, 419th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, to his team. They progressed through day one of the exercise uploading weapons in as little as three minutes.

"Woo!" he boomed across the Creech flightline after a successful upload.

As the sun set, Airmen re-hydrated and sat on truck beds beside the flightline. One after another, the jets, riding a column of flames, launched into the orange sky.

On day three of the exercise, the KC-46A carried the MCA team to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, just north of San Diego, California. F-35s were refueled in-flight by the tanker while over the ocean. Airmen eagerly watched through the small windows at the jets they would shortly be 'catching'.

The cool, cloudy weather of MCAS Miramar was a stark contrast to the dry, desert heat they had left behind hours before; the landscape now marked by palm trees and perfect rows of Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters.

As soon as boots hit the ground, Airmen scattered across the unfamiliar flightline to prepare their aircraft for an expedited turnaround back to Nellis AFB.

"Anytime you can get to an unfamiliar field, it's going to be better training," said Tempel. "Back home, everything is set on autopilot. All the logistics are set in place. Anytime you move off station, now you get to see the plan fall apart."

On the fourth and final day, the MCA team stepped back onto the Creech flightline again to complete one final pass through the exercise validation. Leadership now injected scenarios designed to challenge Airmen in accomplishing their tasks. Notional injuries and broken equipment increased stress, prompting resourcefulness and adaptability.

Senior Master Sgt. Michael Owens, 419th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Weapons Section Chief, repeatedly crouched low to better observe Airmen maneuvering through tight spaces to hoist weapons into their resting positions. In the midst of their tasks, they were 'tapped out' at random. Even after being tagged with 'injuries,' Airmen were determined to continue working.

"I was impressed by their drive…," said Owens. "I couldn't keep them away, they wanted to stay out there. I would have to explain, well, you just got a gunshot wound to the chest."

As the recovered, refueled, and re-fragged jets prepared to launch one final time, the lights on their wingtips blinked across the night-covered flightline. Tactical aircraft maintainers waved their arms signaling them forward onto the runway. The tired but satisfied MCA team packed up their equipment in preparation to return home.

"It was cool to see how my career field can mesh into another one and how we can bring insight to the table," Luttges said. "But also learn lessons from others to bring back home."

Despite only training, on average, two days per month, readiness expectations for reservists remain on par with their active-duty counterparts. For reserve fighter wings, the ability to work independently can act as a measure of effectiveness. As the 419th adapts for the future, this exercise provided insight into reducing the number of Airmen required while still meeting the elevated demands of generating fifth-generation airpower.

The 419th Fighter Wing is comprised of nearly 1300 personnel. These "Citizen Airmen" serve part time in the military but are full-time members of the local community. Most live, work, and raise families in Northern Utah. 419th FW members regularly volunteer to deploy in support of contingency operations and humanitarian efforts worldwide. The wing offers a diverse range of combat capabilities, including F-35 operations and maintenance and full-spectrum mission support such as civil engineering, security forces, medical, aerial port, firefighting, supply, and transportation. The 419th FW was the first Air Force Reserve unit to fly the F-35A Lightning II alongside the active-duty 388th FW at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.