RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas –
Some of them work hand-in-hand with the Air Force on a regular basis. Others had never set foot on an Air Force installation their entire lives. But their knowledge of the world's most powerful air and space force was about to take on a whole new perspective.
Col. Richard Clark, 12th Flying Training Wing commander, invited 27 local civic leaders for a two-day trip to Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., and Nellis AFB, Nev., last week to broaden their knowledge of how the different pieces of the Air Force puzzle come together to form the world's most cohesive fighting force.
Local business owners, senior-level executives, doctors, law enforcement officials and the like from the San Antonio, New Braunfels, Seguin, Schertz, Canyon Lake and Live Oak areas set out to gain some first-hand knowledge about and go "behind-the-scenes" of some of the Air Force's most exciting units.
"I had no idea that different missions at different bases were all linked together like this," said Dr. Beth Lewis, Northeast Lakeview College Academic Affairs vice president. "Everywhere we went, we heard about how their part in the Air Force affects Airmen all over the world."
To get the full experience of what it's like being in the Air Force, civic leaders arrived at 5:15 a.m. on June 6 and received several briefings on upcoming events before boarding an Altus AFB, Okla., KC-135 Stratotanker for the flight from Randolph to Ellsworth. Although some were nervous about their first military airlift flight, others were ecstatic that they could sit in "jump seats" or takeoff with pilots in the cockpit.
"It was really exciting being in the cockpit during takeoff," said Fabio Benjumia, owner of San Anthony Jewelry in Seguin. "My granddaughters are going to love the pictures of me with the headphones on."
After their arrival at Ellsworth, Col. Scott Vander Hamm, 28th Bomb Wing commander, schooled them on the mission of the wing and B-1B Lancer, a long-range bomber, and relayed the successes of the aircraft in the Global War on Terrorism.
"The B-1 is like crack to combatant commanders," said Colonel Vander Hamm, "they just can't get enough B-1 support. Every time we turn around they're asking more from the bomber community ... and we're ready to support them."
Nearly 300 Airmen deploy from the base every deployment cycle.
After the civic leaders got spun up on B-1 operations, they headed to the fire department and the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape flight to try on specialized gear and learn how training can save lives - everything from decontamination techniques and fire safety to surviving a downed plane and learning to live off the land for several days.
"I'm sure pilots and crew members feel much safer with these gadgets ... I would," said David Harris, Schertz City Hall assistant city manager, referring to the night-vision goggles and patches that can only be seen with infrared sensors.
After a long day touring the 28th BW, Colonel Clark and Chief Master Sgt. Stephen Page, 12th FTW command chief, accompanied civic leaders on a tour of Mt. Rushmore National Park and a civic leader dinner at the base of the famed presidential faces.
Six hours later, they would get up early and do it all over again - this time at Nellis AFB.
Up first: the world-renowned air combat training program, "Red Flag."
Red Flag is a major air combat mission training event for U.S. forces and American allies. Since 1975, aircrews, maintainers and their support functions train together on everything from aerial combat to close air support (where aircraft support the troops on the ground by bombing or tracking enemies putting them in danger).
The Nevada Test and Training Range is the location for the exercise and can accommodate more than 200 aircraft at one time.
This struck a spark among many civic leaders. With such a large area for pilots to fly and train, they wanted to know who manages the range, maintains the targets and ensures the balance between environmental concerns, community outreach and mission requirements is fulfilled.
Yvonne Gresnick, 98th Range Wing deputy director, stepped up to answer that complicated question.
"My range is one of the best training tools available to any pilot in the world," said Ms. Gresnick. "But there's a delicate balance we have to maintain to ensure we have a minimal impact on the environment and community. We have multiple programs established to ensure our pilots and crews get the best training available to them while at the same time ensuring we uphold our responsibilities."
The next stop was one of the most exciting displays of airpower for the attendees. Civic leaders got a taste of "today's future" when they experienced unmanned flight with the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper programs at Nellis.
The two munition-carrying aircraft can support intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions 24 hours a day at a fraction of the cost.
"The Air Force should have done this a long time ago," said Hermie Bonet, president of EZ Mechanical, Inc. in San Antonio. "Many lives will be saved because of this new aircraft. The aircraft are so light and simple, yet priceless."
Another priceless moment came when the civic leaders saw the inside workings of the service's premier aerial demonstration team, The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.
A behind-the-scenes tour of the Thunderbirds hangar allowed them access to sights few had seen before, with walls lined with historic memorabilia dating back to the Thunderbirds inception and films about their accomplishments.
Civic leaders learned much about the team - everything from the team's beginnings as the 3600th Air Demonstration Team at Luke AFB, Ariz., in 1953, to the four-aircraft training tragedy in 1982 dubbed the "Diamond Crash."
"The Thunderbirds have a rich history that we love to share with the community," said Tech. Sgt. Michael Murphy, NCO in charge of support for the Thunderbirds. "We not only fly precision maneuvers to 'Wow!' audiences, we also take time to give back by getting out of the cockpit and into the community."
For their last tour stop, the group visited the 66th Rescue Squadron, one of only six Air Force active-duty combat rescue units flying the HH-60G Pavehawk helicopter.
Leaders learned what it takes to be a hero, as members of the 66th RQS briefed them on what it's like performing critical search and rescue missions when lives hang in the balance.
"These Airmen really are heroes," said Mandy Harris, military liaison for the Canyon Lake Chamber of Commerce, referring to one Airman she met in the squadron who has rescued more than 30 people alone. "I couldn't even imagine doing what they do."
As the civic leaders slowly boarded the aircraft that evening, many were exhausted from the two-day tour. But a few tried not to let it phase them, saying "Who are we to complain? You guys do this every day ... and we can't thank you enough."