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Mighty Black Panthers make history

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Erik Hofmeyer
  • 379th Air Expeditionary Wing
970 combat sorties and approximately 6,500 total flying hours would be a significant milestone for some fighter squadrons. However, RAF Lakenheath's the 494th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, accomplished some significant feats and firsts during its deployment to the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing.

An example of a significant feat occurred while preparing for a mission in Iraq. Just before launching, the squadron was given new orders. The new mission was to prepare and launch aircraft to an operating area 2,500 miles away from here to provide an airborne, on call, highly responsive reconnaissance and attack capability if needed.

Col. Jeff Fraser, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing vice commander, said the 494th demonstrated the flexibility, speed and lethality required in our ever-changing expeditionary mission. "From the time they were given their new mission, the Strike Eagles were in place to provide lethal airpower to support troops on the ground in less than 10 hours--and that includes the five hours it took to get over the target," Colonel Fraser said.

This operation provided "incredible options for the CENTCOM commander," said Col. Gary Crowder, deputy director of the Combined Air Operations Center. The squadron sustained its presence in the distant operating area for three days, and then resumed missions in Iraq within hours of recovering aircraft from the contingency operations, he said.

"It is a remarkable testament to the professionalism, grit and aviation skills of the men and women of the 494th EFS...that they could pull out of one contingency and launch and place combat aircraft on station in another contingency 2,500 miles away in slightly over nine hours," Colonel Crowder said.

When called to employ weapons in another mission, the 494th EFS laid claim to some firsts.

Squadron members employed the GBU-39, or small-diameter bomb, into the war theater for the first time. The weapon consists of four Global Positioning System-guided SDBs attached to a state-of-the-art bomb release unit, as opposed to one large 500 or 2,000 pound bomb.

The GBU-39's small size and accuracy enables pilots to deliver more bombs to more targets. The smaller bombs also reduce the time needed for munitions specialists to replace expended munitions.

Additionally, the squadron was the first to employ upgraded mission planning software during combat sorties. The software is designed to provide the optimal plan for an aircraft or weapon to achieve its mission.

Despite the 494th EFS achievements, the squadron members were aware of the importance of their jobs.

"We're out there supporting the guys by looking for people trying to hurt our troops with improvised explosive devices, mortars or any other means, said Capt. Kenneth Madsen, 494th EFS pilot.

"The troops on the ground can take comfort when they can hear us up there, and that the bad guys are hunkering down," said 1st Lt. Paul Atkinson, 494th EFS weapons systems officer. "It's not like we expend a lot of weapons, but when we do, it hurts them."

The 494th EFS members began training at home station months before their 890 missions in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, 82 missions supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, 62 total weapons expenditures and approximately 34,000 pounds of munitions dropped.

"All of the training and hard work put in before we got here paid off." said Lieutenant Atkinson.

The squadron also trained with some British Joint Theater Air Control Systems and some U.S. JTACS from Ramstein Air Base, Germany. "We'd go out and talk with those guys on the radios, and they'd try and talk our eyes onto different places and buildings around England," said Lieutenant Atkinson. Throughout this historical four-month stretch, a key ingredient to the accomplishments of the 494th was the hard work and the readiness of the 379th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and all others involved leading up to and during the deployment. "We're here because of every individual; from our leadership to the youngest Airman," Captain Madsen said. The squadron's successes have also brought a lot of attention from international news organizations. Just this week, the squadron was prominently featured on Fox News Channel.

"It's a little overwhelming," Captain Madsen said.

"We try not to let it distract us; our commander made it clear that our number one mission is flying jets," he said. "Although, we do love getting the word out to everyone else who doesn't know what we do over here."