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Grim Reapers help ensure summit success

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Brad Howell
  • 493rd Fighter Squadron
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, the 493rd Fighter Squadron's Grim Reapers and the 493rd Aircraft Maintenance Unit deployed to Denmark to support the 2006 NATO Summit. Called Operation Peaceful Summit, the Reapers were tasked with protecting the U.S. President and the 26 NATO heads of state gathering in Riga, Latvia as the only air superiority squadron in U.S. Air Forces in Europe.

"Given the large concentration of world leaders in one place it took months to prepare and plan for the operation," said Maj. Marc LaRue, the 493rd FS's lead mission planner for the summit. Reaper pilots were involved in every aspect of mission planning and played an integral part in designing the overall operation, he added.

Once the concept of operations was finalized, a customized training plan was designed for the pilots to prepare. Following rigorous academics, rules of engagement training and simulator missions, each Reaper pilot underwent a tailored flight spin up program. Flight scenarios culminated with night, low altitude conversions against slow moving targets.

"The spin-up for Operation Peaceful Summit involved some of the most challenging low/slow scenarios I've practiced in my 2,500 hours flying the F-15C," said Lt. Col. Edward Denholm, 493rd FS commander.

The 2006 Riga Summit marked the first time in history a NATO Summit was held in a former Soviet Union nation.

"The challenges of flying deep into the heart of the former Iron Curtain raised a number of operational issues," Major LaRue said. "Pilots flying from RAF Lakenheath to Latvia faced the prospect of 10 to 12 hour missions. Given this distance, a forward deployment made the most sense."

Many sites were considered, but Skrydstrup, Denmark was chosen. About 350 miles closer to Riga then RAF Lakenheath, Skrydstrup saved approximately two hours of transit time and one aerial refueling per sortie. Also, the outstanding host nation support the 493rd received after deploying to Skrydstrup in August to train with the Denmark F-16s made the choice simple, said Colonel Denholm.

"The strong relationships we built with the Danes a few months ago provided a natural solution for a forward deployed location for the NATO Summit," he said.

Deploying an entire fighter squadron and all of the associated support elements necessary is never an easy task. The Reaper deployment team was led by Major LaRue and Master Sgt. Ramel Haley from the 493rd AMU. Under their leadership and organization, the 493rd deployed 16 jets and over 250 people to Denmark.

Most Air and Space Expeditionary Force deployments RAF Lakenheath supports consist of approximately 12 jets, so the 16-ship requirement posed a challenge for the maintenance team. The 493rd AMU "Reaper Keepers," led by Capt. Mike Andrews and Chief Master Sgt. Eric Jaren, overcame this challenge on Nov. 22 when the deployment launch saw all 16 aircraft launch as scheduled, with zero ground aborts.

"Each jet was intricately tracked: to get the primaries ready; maintain the health of the fleet in the long run; and continue to fly a normal schedule in the months leading up to the operation," said Captain Andrews, who added the Gold mission capable rate was over 90 percent after the operation.

"Absolutely unheard of!" said Chief Jaren. "Our team accomplished over two months worth of maintenance in October alone in order to make this happen. It is truly good to be Gold!"

Once deployed, the 493rd FS transformed into the 48th Air Expeditionary Group, commanded by Colonel Denholm.

Joining the team in Denmark were personnel from the Liberty Wing's contracting, logistics readiness and operations support squadrons, as well as a Liberty fireman and personnel from the 100th Operations Support Squadron. Deploying from Ramstein, the 1st Combat Communications Squadron provided world-class communications support, ensuring deployed Reapers could use specialized internet, phone, radio and satellite communications connectivity required for the mission.

On Nov. 27, 48th AEG began 24-hour operations to provide a four ship of aircraft to cover four hour periods over Riga. Because of bad weather throughout Europe, the AEG also ensured an additional four ship was ready to launch at a moments notice in case the 52nd Fighter Wing from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany was unable to takeoff. As the weather worsened, an additional two ship rapid-response was required to back up the 31st Fighter Wing from Aviano Air Base, Italy, forward deployed to Lithuania.

"The weather was so bad that at one point USAFE waived peacetime weather restrictions so the mission could continue," said Staff Sgt. Ian Patterson, 48th OSS lead weather planner for the deployment. The weather represented a major threat to the operation's success. "The weather pattern in late November was truly a 'perfect storm' of fog, low ceilings, and poor visibility," added Sergeant Patterson.

Reaper pilots forged ahead, routinely taking off in adverse weather and arriving over Riga, rarely with enough fuel to make the return journey. Refueling support from the 100th ARW was critical, as each mission required up to four in-flight refuelings.

"The performance of our young flight leads and wingmen, in concert with our 100th refueling brethren, was outstanding - I could not be more proud," said Lt. Col. Craig Wills, 493rd FS director of operations. "Not only was the flying itself challenging, but the maintenance effort on the ground in fog, rain, and at night was truly phenomenal," he added.

"The 'between goes' maintenance was beyond compare to get the jets ready for every takeoff. With zero maintenance non-deliveries and spares prepped and ready at all times, the 493rd AMU demonstrated how, rain, snow or shine, they can continue to generate sorties, even when the enemy can't," Chief Jaren said.

After months of planning and preparing for their role in Operation Peaceful Summit, the Grim Reapers can confidently claim mission success --flying 35 sorties and covering over 234 flying hours, to protect the skies over the NATO summit.

"It could not have been done without the tremendous work by all of the support agencies involved as well as the people of Denmark," Colonel Denholm said. "Overall, I could not be more proud of the Liberty warriors who deployed to protect the President and the NATO heads of state."