American Buzzards in the UK

Mark Ayton visited the F-16C-equipped 510th Fighter Squadron during a recent deployment to the UK

Mark Ayton

Close air support and the UK, especially the county of Suffolk, are no strangers to the 510th. The squadron was equipped with the A-10 Thunderbolt II and assigned to the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing based at RAF Bentwaters, Suffolk, from the early part of 1979 until December 1992; close air support was its bread-and-butter mission with the objective of killing Soviet Bloc tanks using the 30mm GAU-8/A Avenger cannon. Fast forward to July 2018 and the squadron remains in the close air support business, but operates Block 40 F-16C and F-16D Fighting Falcons. Designated the 510th Fighter Squadron, the unit retains its ‘Buzzards’ nickname and resides at Aviano Air Base, Italy, as a component squadron in the 31st Fighter Wing.

On July 20, more than half of the squadron’s F-16Cs arrived back in Suffolk for a two-week flying training deployment at RAF Lakenheath to train in close air support. The Aviano contingent comprised nearly 200 airmen from various units assigned to the 31st Fighter Wing, led by Lt Col Benjamin Freeborn, Commander of the 510th Fighter Squadron.

Lt Col Freeborn said the Lakenheath deployment was a capstone event to the squadron’s own training cycle. He said: “As a squadron, we undertake part-task training missions and some mission-focussed scenarios. We are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to train away from our home station, which of course is a familiar setting that everyone is comfortable with. There is no better test of how the training cycle went than to test flight operations in an unfamiliar environment. That was the ultimate objective of this deployment: to test our readiness in an environment in which we cannot fall-back on familiarity.”

Effort behind the deployment was made by dozens of airmen from the 31st and 48th Fighter Wings who support the 510th’s departure from Aviano and arrival and bed down at Lakenheath. Freeborn continued: “So, while it appears to be a Buzzard deployment, it is really a USAFE [United States Air Forces in Europe] event between two large fighter wings.”

Close air support

The entire two-week flying programme was focused on close air support. The US Joint Publication 3.09 defines the mission: “Close air support is a critical element of joint fire support that requires detailed planning, coordination, and training of ground and supporting air forces for safe and effective execution. Based on threats and the availability of other means of fire support or supporting arms, synchronizing close air support in time, space, and purpose with supported ground forces may be the most detailed and continuous integration task performed by the joint force, component commanders, and staffs. The supported commander establishes the target priority, effects, and timing of close air support fires within the boundaries of the land or maritime areas of operations, joint special operations areas, or amphibious objective areas. Close air support is a key capability for each of these components to employ fires that destroy, suppress, or neutralize enemy forces and in turn permit movement and manoeuvre, and enable control of territory, populations, and key waters.”

Staging close air support missions involves airmen specialising in various roles: munition troops to assemble the inert training weapons, weapons troops to load munitions on to the aircraft, and maintenance troops to ensure the aircraft is correctly configured and free of maintenance write-ups.

Lt Col Freeborn said the team had to figure out and perfect the processes involved by working through unique problems to make the mission happen, “things that we normally have to simulate at Aviano.”

Squadron pilots dropped the entire complement of inert weapons allocated for the Lakenheath deployment during the first week: 16 pairs of 500lb GBU-38 and 2,000lb GBU-31 JDAMs [Joint Direct Attack Missions], and a couple of 500lb GBU-12 laser-guided bombs. All of the weapons dropped were released on the Vliehors range in the Netherlands.

Explaining the weapons deliveries, Lt Col Freeborn said regular training with JDAM weapons is undertaken at Aviano but use of tail kits housing the guidance system and how the aircraft feels when a weapon is carried are usually simulated. Putting all processes into practice while flying from Lakenheath was invaluable for the squadron. Weapon delivery accuracy was scored and graded by the squadron’s weapons officer.

The UK ranges at Holbeach and Donna Nook were used for two purposes: to strafe targets with the 20mm M61AI Vulcan cannon using training rounds, and to work with UK tactical air control parties (TACPs).

A crew chief signals to the pilot to apply the brakes at the parking spot.
All images Mark Ayton

According to Lt Col Freeborn, work undertaken with the UK TACPs at Donna Nook proved to be really good. He said: “Any time we can use an area that we are not familiar with means we have to build a shared understanding between the ground party and the close air support pilot. That’s much harder when you are not familiar with the area, and sometimes complicated with unfamiliar accents.”

Lakenheath operations

Scheduled with two turns each day, the squadron typically flew a morning sortie and an afternoon sortie. Flight operations through the first week were conducted from hardened aircraft shelters, because of the requirements associated with loading and unloading weapons; once the weapons allocation was expended, light operations moved to a light line.

Ground operations were not that much different from those at Aviano; the big difference for the Aviano pilots was operating in a different national airspace structure. Lt Col Freeborn said: “The UK structures its airspace a lot differently [from how] Italy does. That’s another example of how useful the Lakenheath deployment is for us. We have the opportunity to operate in drastically different airspace control structures. We have the folks at Swanwick Control to thank for keeping us deconlicted. Any time we can work with a different control agency, using unfamiliar terminology helps to grow a young light lead or a wingman in a fighter squadron. The speciics of airspace control structure are less important than the unfamiliarity to the pilot, it’s really about putting them in a position in which they have to learn the new structure and operate with it on very short notice. There really is no substitute for that kind of training.”

Improving readiness

In general terms, all fighter squadrons with close air support as part of its mission set undertake regular training in that role. Given range availability and airspace restrictions, close air support training is staged to replicate real world operations as much as possible. In the case of the Buzzards’ Lakenheath deployment, the squadron was not training for any specific contingency or any specific area of operation but improving its level of readiness at the end of its spin-up cycle.

Lt Col Freeborn explained: “It’s really about readiness for the unknown and it’s hard to replicate the unknown. For a few missions we added in some changes by simply switching the range that the pilot was planning to go to, that day. We did not send them up on air alert and work with a command and control agency for target allocation; that was outside the scope of this training event.”

Like other US Air Force fighter squadrons, the 510th has a ground liaison officer assigned. In the case of the 510th, a US Army noncommissioned officer who works with the squadron’s mission planning cell to guide all pilots through the preparatory aspects of the close air support role. This includes a brieing on the ground order of battle, the likely ingress and egress routes and often imagery of the area, a process undertaken for any area of operation or exercise.

Lt Col Freeborn acknowledged that sometimes the JTAC will also have copies of the imagery and sometimes does not: “That’s part of the unknown that we try to introduce to our training.” Commenting on training in general, Freeborn explained how in an ideal world, given a two-week period, the Buzzards evaluate their mission performance during the first week and then apply lessons learned during the second week, a notion that was certainly achieved at Lakenheath.

The Buzzards’ light schedule was busy, lying ten jets twice each day all to facilitate the individual training requirements of all of the squadron’s pilots of all experience levels; its entire roster was present at Lakenheath. The US Air Force has a lot of great traditions, one of which is to ly the last mission of a training deployment led by the squadron commander and include the youngest pilot. During the last mission Lt Col Freeborn led the squadron’s youngest pilot.

Lt Col Freeborn explained how that final sortie gave him a chance to see how the squadron’s training plan is doing, and how our younger instructor pilots are mentoring the youngest pilots: “When a young pilot lies as your wingman, you get to see the level of instruction they have received and I’d like to think of myself as still having a thing or two, as an instructor pilot, to pass along.”

Excellent maintenance, excellent training

Operating Block 40 F-16Cs built in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Buzzards’ jets are certainly nowhere near being new, yet the squadron, like many others, continues to maintain adequately its commitments and light schedules at Aviano, on training exercises around Europe, occasionally in the United States (Exercise Red Flag) and in combat when tasked for expeditionary deployment. An observer might expect 30-year-old jets to go unserviceable regularly, drop missions and fail to meet the daily flight schedule. Based on the author’s experience of observing daily flight operations at Lakenheath, that was far from the case. Lt Col Freeborn acknowledged that as the aircraft age you would expect more problems from them, but that’s not the case, mostly thanks to the commitment and excellence of the maintainers and the close cooperation between the Buzzard aircraft maintenance unit and the Buzzard fighter squadron. He said: “We [in the fighter squadron] work really closely with the aircraft maintenance unit in a way that works very well. The Buzzards specifically work together in a way that I have rarely seen better in my career. Our maintainers help keep the fact of our fleet’s age safely filed away in the back of pilots’ minds, such that I for one, do not think about it when stepping out to the aircraft. There is no questioning that jet is ready, thanks to the professionalism of our maintenance airmen.”

In this shot a crew chief releases a panel housing engine oil gauges.
The commander’s jet has a Buzzard’s head motif, a stylised code and serial number and the squadron’s number embedded in a purple tail stripe.
All of the F-16s sent to Lakenheath were fitted with an AAQ-33 Sniper targeting pod.

”It’s really about readiness for the unknown and it’s hard to replicate the unknown.” Lt Col Freeborn

Despite the deployment’s primary focus on close air support, on a few occasions the F-16 pilots flew low-level in the UK’s Low Fly Area 7 in Wales. Lt Col Freeborn said the low-fly missions were an important training objective to re-establish low-fly currency for most of the squadron’s pilots. He also highlighted the importance of working with the 100th Air

Refuelling Wing based at RAF Mildenhall that provided aerial refuelling, allowing the F-16s to “get a sip of gas and then return to the close air support mission”. The squadron commander was impressed with the way UK airspace is structured: “It’s very conducive for that kind of training, plus we got some top up training in aerial refuelling.” Reflecting on the Lakenheath deployment, Lt Col Freeborn was proud to have led the Buzzards back to the UK; the squadron was deactivated at RAF Bentwaters in December 1992. Members of the Buzzards’ team visited the Bentwaters Cold War museum during the deployment to gain insight into their squadron’s heritage. Recognising the hosting 48th Fighter Wing, and the various UK units and agencies who supported the squadron, Lt Col Freeborn said his unit had received world-class training, had accomplished its objectives: “From the time we landed, it has been a great experience.”

During their two-week deployment to RAF Lakenheath, the Buzzards flew 168 sorties (96% of those planned), accumulated 332.2 hours of flight time, and safely released 16 GBU-38, 16 GBU-31 and 2 GBU-12 inert training bombs, and fired 25,430 20mm inert training rounds during strafing practise.