I Witnessed a Mock Air War

Red Flag 17-2 raged over my head in Nevada

I Witnessed a Mock Air War I Witnessed a Mock Air War
The U.S. Air Force’s Red Flag, the most important air-combat exercise in the world, takes place four times a year at Nellis Air Force... I Witnessed a Mock Air War

The U.S. Air Force’s Red Flag, the most important air-combat exercise in the world, takes place four times a year at Nellis Air Force Base north of Las Vegas, Nevada.

I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Nevada during Red Flag 17-2, which lasted from Feb. 27 to March 10, 2017. From a spot near Nellis, I watched the mock air war rage.

Jets at Nellis for Red Flag 17-2. All photos by Vincent Vagner

Aircraft parked on the apron at Nellis during Red Flag 17-2 mostly were F-16s from a number of American and foreign squadrons, including

  • the 55th, 77th and 79th Fighter Squadrons from Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina,
  • the Alabama Air National Guard’s 100th Fighter Squadron,
  • the Colorado Air National Guard’s 120th Fighter Squadron and
  • the 322nd Squadron of the Dutch air force based at Leeuwarden.

Also attending were USAF F-15Es from the England-based 493rd Fighter Squadron plus Spanish Eurofighters from Ala 111, supported by a KC-130H from Ala 312. Some F/A-18s and EA-6Bs were also visible on the Nellis ramp.

An aggressor F-16 after take-off

After two days of shooting tons of pictures and wanting more than take-offs and landings at the base, I ventured to Coyote Summit, a two-hour drive north from Sin City.

Passing Hancok Summit on the E.T. Highway — also known as U.S. 375 — one can see the vastness of the USAF’s favorite playground. On the left, there’s a trail leading to Area 51, invisible behind a small ridge.

My plan was to stop at a small gap up the road from where most of the “blue” players — as opposed to the “red” opposition force — should fly by, low and high.

Around Coyote Summit

So here I was, on this clear Nevada morning, sitting on top of Coyote Summit, a 200-foot hill at the “gate” of the Nellis range. I waited.

This particular place is well-known among spotters. By noon, there were five people here, chatting about aviation and pointing our cameras at every engine sound we heard above the wind.

At around 1:00 P.M., things started moving. Two white pickups drove fast across the desert south of our vantage point. They weren’t going to set up a simulated Roland surface-to-air missile site, as we initially believed. They dropped off a lone man then drove away.

There was some radio chatter between the pickups and a range controller. It turned out the trucks dropped off the man at the wrong location. But it was too late to fix the mistake. The main action was beginning.

At 2:20 P.M., we heard some tactical comms on the radio. U.S. F-15s and Spanish Typhoons were setting up their combat air patrol well east of our position.

F-15s above Coyote Summit

Vul time — when a plane is “vulnerable” to engagement, according to the war game’s rules — had been delayed because some players are still on the tarmac at Nellis. At 2:45 P.M., we see a “wall” of four F-15Cs and their contrails pushing west toward the red players.

The opposition initially was just a pair of F-16 aggressors. But soon, as the fight developed, more aircraft from both sides converged over our heads and fought at high altitude.

To the merge!
An F-15 during the engagement

Pilots called their shots on the radio. “Pulsar One, fox three, bullseye 080 10 23 thousand!”

“Copy shot,” a controller said, and a few seconds later a voice confirmed the shots as kills — “MiG Three dead” — or misses.

A Spanish Typhoon at high altitude

Some aggressors died and came back. “Cylon Three, pop-up single, BRA 250, 15 miles, 26,000, regen.” Some blue players got shot, but mostly red air got hurt and regenerated regularly. Spanish Typhoons and Dutch Vipers dropped flares every now and then, calling out “spike” or “SAM” based on what their radar-warning gear told them.

Spanish Typhoons flaring
Flares visible from Coyote Summit

While these jets fought overhead, sometimes producing impressive double sonic booms, we could hear helicopters approaching low from the southeast.

A U.S. Navy MH-60 approaching

Two Navy MH-60S from HSC-21 turned for a few minutes before converging toward our lonely guy, still waiting not far from us. I was as close to the action as I’d ever be.

Soon we heard jets coming to help the rescue copters. Two F-16s from the 120th Fighter Squadron, their Colorado tail-markings clearly visible, circled around 1,000 feet above us, protecting the man portraying a downed pilot … and his rescuers.

One of the copters involved in the rescue mission
F-16s protect the rescue copters

The extraction took 10 minutes. The Vipers even simulated an attack on the white pickups, now hidden in a creek bed. The choppers took off with their precious cargo and headed to the southeast.

MH-60s egressing

The fighter activity now seemed to subside a bit. Some pilots were already calling “RTB” — meaning “return to base” — while others sanitized the area for egress. It’s worth noting that all the kills I observed were beyond-visual-range or nearly so.

At about 4:15, two hours after the first thunderous noises, we heard the radio call ending the afternoon’s combat. “All players, all players, knock it off, knock it off.”

Thanks to Todd Miller for the info about aviation photography and the Coyote Summit area. This story originally appeared at The Aviationist.

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