104th Fighter Wing flies through change, as unit transitions to air-to-air mission

By Matt Benedetti

F-15 Eagles from the 104th Fighter Wing, Massachusetts Air National Guard are parked next to an A-10 Thunderbolt II at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida on April 15, 2011. Deployed to Tyndall AFB, the 104th is participating in the Weapons System Evaluation Program (WSEP). The two week training and evaluation program is important for ground crews to test their maintenance systems and processes while loading live munitions on F-15 Eagles, as well as critical live training for the F-15 pilots to employ air-to-air missiles against real world targets. (U.S. Air Force Photo by: Master Sergeant, Mark W. Fortin.)

PANAMA CITY, Fla. – Air Force and Air National Guard personnel are trained to operate in uncertain environments and to adapt to changing circumstances.

Shifting from the air- to-ground mission of the A-10 Thunderbolt to the air- to- air mission of the F-15 Eagle presented the Barnestormers of the Air Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing with challenges associated with a major transition.

The unit’s re-designation in 2007 has not been without its obstacles, but 104th members have faced the transition with determination and a positive attitude.

This trademark character is on display in support of the weapon system evaluation program and exercise known as Combat Archer which runs through this week at Tyndall Air Force Base here.

The two-week program is designed to evaluate the entire F-15 weapons system – from the air crews to the aircraft to its armaments.

Such exercises allow the 104th to identify shortfalls in the entire weapons system. It also provides vital training for F-15 pilots to employ air- to- air missiles against real-world targets.

Several pilots of the previous A-10 Thunderbolt mission volunteered to train in the F-15 Eagle and remain members of the 104th.

Lt. Col. Thom Kelly, an Albany, N.Y. native, is among them. He served as an A-10 pilot for 10 years before deciding to attend the four-month school to become an F-15 pilot.

Kelly says he felt that the camaraderie and unit cohesion of the 104th was important. “I decided that I wanted to stay at Barnes,” he said. “These were the people that I served with since 1998 and during (Operation Iraqi Freedom.) This is the family I was accustomed to working with and going to war with.”

Although many of the skills learned as an A-10 pilot are commensurate with those of the F-15, the flying practices of the two planes are distinct. The F-15 travels at a much higher speed and the G forces are greater.

Having achieved a high level of proficiency as an A-10 pilot, learning the new skills required to pilot an F-15 can be a difficult endeavor, according to Kelly.

“You have to check your ego. You may have been an expert on the A-10, but it takes awhile to master flying a different plane,” he said.

Enlisted personnel operating on the flightline have managed to adapt to working with a different aircraft as well.

“The jet engine in the F-15 can suck you in, so you need to be aware,” said Staff Sgt. Ryan Quigley, of West Brookfield. “We will be loading a lot of missiles, but it is going to be great,” said Quigley, who is a weapons loader and recently reenlisted.

This exercise sees his team loading live weapons onto the unit’s F-15s.

The officer in charge for the exercise is Maj. Peter Carr, of Southwick. He served previously as part of a 104th team which produced upwards of 40 sorties a day in a combat environment.

“We had a 98-percent sortie effectiveness rate, we learned a lot, and the professionalism we brought home with us continues to be present on the flightline today,” said Carr. “Our unit being with the A-10 for so long went through a culture shock, moving from air- to-ground to air- to- air mission. The F-15 mission is all about radar and identifying targets from far away. It’s just a different animal, but a righteous mission!”

Added Carr, “We are part of new proud heritage with the Eagle, and our guys are on board now. The incentive rides in the jet don’t hurt either.”

The 104th’s maintenance group gained 179 military positions and more than 60 full-time positions when it moved from flying the A-10 to the F-15.

“We have a number of people that have never been on a trip like (this exercise), myself included. This is just one more resume builder for the 104th Fighter Wing, as well as a great opportunity to get great training for ops and maintenance, “said Carr.

“I’ve been in the Guard for 18 years. I had planned to be in for six, to get the educational benefits. Not long in to my first term, I found this exciting job, great people, and outstanding lifestyle,” Carr said. “I used to work full-time at an insurance company, and you would fall asleep if I told you what I did for a living. There are days (now) that I go home and I can’t believe they pay us for this. And, I can look my kids square in the eye. (I’m) glad to be here, proud to serve.”

Matthew Benedetti is a staff sergeant with the Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing, based at Barnes Municipal Airport, Westfield.

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