104th ANG fighter pilots spar high above Green Mountains

Col. Jim Suhr explains how the instrumentation pod, to the left of the dummy missile, records a training session. Click any photo to launch the gallery. Photos by Cynthia Prairie.

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC


Some morning in the near future you’ll hear that rumble, the one that scared your cat and made you search the skies last week. And as that rumble becomes a roar, echoing off the Green Mountains of southern Vermont, you just might catch a glimpse of an F-15 fighter jet that seven minutes earlier sat on the tarmac at Barnes Air National Guard Base near Springfield, Mass., a 90-minute drive from here.

Back in September of 2016, fighter pilots from the 104th Fighter Wing began using the skies high above southern Vermont as their training ground.  This year’s training began in early May and will continue through mid-June. 

The levers (known as actuators or “turkey feathers”) shown above control the diameter of the jet engine’s exhaust nozzle for the correct thrust.

According to wing commander Col. Jim Suhr, his team of 25 fighter pilots can’t practice in the busy airspace above the base, which is less than 20 miles from Bradley International in Hartford, Conn. “The big problem in the northeast,” said Suhr “is finding nearby airspace that isn’t full of airliners.”

Around 2014, and working with the Federal Aviation Administration, the air guard unit began a two-year permitting process — including noise studies — to establish a temporary “Military Operations Area”  in a 20-by-30 mile rectangle stretching from just north of Marlboro to Ludlow and from Winhall to just west of Bellows Falls. While these fighters pilots fly within that 600-square-mile area — soaring above 9,000 feet — air traffic controllers keep airliners away.

The “Chugs Temporary Military Operations Area” — named for 104th F-15 pilot Glenn “Chugs” Milliken who died of cancer in February 2016 — may be small, but it fits the close combat maneuvers that fighter pilots must master through repetition.

Col. Tom ‘Sling’ Bladen in the cockpit of an F-15.

In real combat, such maneuvers are done without the three detachable fuel tanks the planes can carry. The weight of the extra fuel makes the planes less agile so just before a real dog fight, those tanks would be dropped. To replicate that in training, (without dropping the fuel tanks) the planes fly with only the fuel they can carry internally. The farther the planes have to travel to the training area, the less fuel the pilots have available for training.

Operations group commander Col. Tom “Sling” Bladen made an analogy. “If you’ve got an hour to go workout and there’s one gym five minutes away and one gym 20 minutes away you’re going to go where you can get the longest workout,” said Bladen.

The 104th Chugs TMOA.

Col. Suhr said that his fighter pilots are trained in steps. The first two – basic maneuvering and combat maneuvering – involve one-on-one and two-on-one “dog fighting” and proficiency is gained by repetition which takes flying time.

In one such maneuver, two F-15s traveling more than 500 mph “merge” at 20,000 feet. They circle each other trying to gain a position that will result in a “kill.” As the circle grows smaller, airspeeds drop and the planes begin to lose altitude. By the time they reach 10,000 feet – where rules say they must break off or lose the fight — their speeds may have dropped to 230 mph.

During a fight, pilots must perform a huge number of tasks while being nearly immobilized by g-forces. Every finger of both hands works a controller on the stick and throttle while the pilot monitors the radar and fights against the weight of his or her helmeted head to see the other plane through the canopy.

Wing commander Col. Suhr, left, and Col. Bladen explain the skills needed to fly the F-15.

The planes training over Vermont are not armed, but there’s a missile-like instrumentation pod under the left wing that records what happens during the flight. Once back at base, that information is downloaded and used to create a 3-D “cartoon” that helps pilots see and understand problems with their flights.

So what do these pilots see as they are soaring over the luscious Green Mountains? Not much except the ski areas, which really stand out.

Missions at home and abroad

Formed in 1947 — the same year as the Air Force — the 104th is an Air National Guard unit has several missions including “sitting alert” with planes loaded with weapons and pilots ready to take off to intercept anything that would be considered an airborne threat for an area that includes New England the mid-Atlantic states. Included in this duty is flying security for events like the Boston Marathon and President Trump’s recent commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy.

The 104th has also been called on to be part of an “air expeditionary force” in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as countries in Europe and South America. Unlike most guard units, which are made of part-time soldiers, 16 of the wing’s 25 pilots are full-time with the guard. In August 2016, the 104th finally got its first female pilot – Ashley Rolfe. Suhr, who joined the 104th in January, said he found it unusual since he had been flying in units with female pilots since the 1990s.

While the F-15 is still a formidable weapon, carrying heat-seeking air-to-air missiles and a 20mm cannon and has been updated with the latest electronics, the 104th’s 21 planes were produced in the 1970s and ’80s and have been flown more than twice the 4,000 hours that they were designed for.  There have been mixed signals about whether the Air Force will retire the plane in the mid-2020s.

If you’d like to see the planes that you hear overhead up-close, Barnes will be participating in the Westfield International Airshow on Aug. 12 and 13, 2017.

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  1. Bill Farace says:

    Go for it Guys and Gals. I love to hear you overhead while painting my house. It makes me feel secure in these trying times. God bless you 104th Fighter Wing.

  2. mike leclair says:

    Rock on 104th. This is noise I look forward to! God Bless America!