Some 300 Iowa Air National Guard soldiers of the 124th Fighter Squadron of the 132nd Fighter Wing based in Des Moines are currently on duty flying and supporting around-the-clock operations in Afghanistan.
Major Trenton Twedt of Roland, commands the personnel on the ground that keep the jets in the air.
“I guess the biggest thing that we all feel is that we are the first F-16 United States Air Force unit to operate out of Kanduhar, and that is huge,” Twedt says.
“Once again that is testament to the people that we’ve got here. the people back home in Des Moines at the 132nd fighter wing, the families. And just in general what I always say is the good old Iowa hard work ethic that got us here and how we’re doing the jobs.”
Overall squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel Travis Acheson of West Des Moines, says making history at Kanduhar came only after they picked up everything and moved operations 250 miles south from the base in Bagram.
He says they were handed us buildings and were told to create and operations, maintenance and safety plan for the Kanduhar base that will be used for all future operations from the base.
Acheson says the six-month operation is a combined effort with other F-16 units from Washington, D.C. and Atlantic City, New Jersey. The jets are constantly in the air on assigned missions and can be called to help ground troops at any time with the help of a ground spotter.
“It’s an embedded Air Force member in with the Army or in with the special forces on the ground… we will check with them and they know what we are carrying as far as munitions and they will immediately start giving us very precise coordinates so we can put our sensors on specific areas and start looking, one where the position of the friendlies are on the ground, and two where the postilion of the hostile enemy is on the ground,” Atcheson explains.
The jets carry bombs that have their own internal GPS systems so they can land with an accuracy that puts them within 30 yards of the target. “In addition to these awesome GPS guided smart bombs, we also are carrying some bombs that are GPS guided with the ability for us to laze them in with our laser spots. So, in the event that we have a vehicle that is on the move…we have the ability to move the laser spot slightly out in front of those hostile enemies and be able to engage them that way,” Atcheson says.
There are several safeguards in place before one of the fighters lets loose of a bomb as Atcheson says with tensions high in the region, they don’t want any mistakes. “We absolutely cannot under any circumstances have any collateral damage or have any fear of injuring any of the friendly forces,” he says. Atcheson says they are called on some type of support mission almost every day, but he says they don’t often have to fire their weapons.
“The number one thing we use is just the noise of the F-16, it’s extremely loud, it’s very powerful, it’s enough to scare the dickens out of the enemy,” according the Atcheson. He says there are several cases where the jets are called in and they see the enemy scramble.
“They know our air power is so precise and accurate that they better not hang around, because we will find them, and we will make sure that the good guys live to fight another day,” Atcheson says. First Lieutenant Ryan Stott of Jefferson, is on his first combat deployment with the guard.
Stott says the sound of the F-16’s makes the enemy scramble, but it brings reassurance to his fellow soldiers on the ground. “I’ve actually had guys on the radio say that they were nervous and you know weren’t feeling real comfortable but as soon as we checked in overhead making the jet noise…their spirits will lift up,” Stott says. “For me as a young pilot, that is a very rewarding mission.”
Atcheson says they jets were moved to Kanduhar to put them in the birthplace of the Taliban and offer a presence where the action is. He says the pilots will get around 100 hours of flight time during this deployment, which is about what they get the entire year during training in Des Moines. The soldiers spoke to reporters in a conference call.
All photos courtesy of the Iowa National Guard.