187th Fighter Wing pilots prep for first deployment
Only a few years ago, buddies "Lefty" and "Split" were sitting in a classroom learning law and working for a consulting firm.
Trading suit and tie for green flight gear, 1st Lts. Bart Smith and Jeff Witt earned their call-signs "Lefty" and "Split," respectively, while flying fighter jets with the Air National Guard's 187th Fighter Wing.
They are now preparing to deploy in the spring to Afghanistan with the historic "Red Tails" 100th Fighter Squadron after a formal going-away ceremony April 5.
As their deployment draws near, they have feelings of excitement as well as apprehension.
"It's just about what you would expect for going into a combat zone. It's something that we've been training for, and I can say we're both confident that we can do the job well," Witt said.
Their mission overseas will be providing close-air support and armed cover for troops on the ground.
Witt and Smith said they're eager to help soldiers get out of the country safely.
"When you're the armed overwatch for those guys on the ground, that's what you hear is the most gratifying thing," Smith said. "Those guys on the ground who are in a bad situation, you can come in and save a life ... be that safety net."
Smith enlisted under the 187th Fighter Wing and was assigned to the maintenance division in September 2005 before being commissioned as a pilot four and a half years later. At the time, he was studying for a law degree at the University of Alabama.
Witt, unlike Smith, did not enlist but rather signed on as an officer pilot directly. He was working in Georgia as a consultant and came to fly with the 187th at the same time as Smith.
Together they followed the course of pilot training for the F-16C Fighting Falcons. The process takes several years. They finished their full training and earned their wings in September 2013.
Since then, they have been briefed on their initial mission readiness qualifications and are making the necessary preparations for their upcoming deployment.
"We're doing a lot of very specific training to gear up for what we anticipate the mission being over there. It's a lot of studying material in our vault, getting familiar with what is going on right now over there," Witt said.
"Basically, our squadron is doing a 'spinoff,' the term we use to get ready so we can hit the ground running when we get over there," Witt explained.
Smith described their preparations as extensive studies in attack strategies and rules of engagement.
"It's kind of like being out on the practice court shooting the thousands of free throws until it's mechanical," Smith said. "The idea is that when you're in the moment and that guy on the ground needs you to act quickly, precisely and professionally, you don't have to think of what to do."
Smith and Witt fly dozens of flights each day to perfect the missions they will perform overseas.
Friends and family will join Smith and Witt and the rest of their team at the deployment ceremony April 5 to show their support.
"I have a wife and a 9-month-old baby who's behind me 100 percent," Smith said. "My wife is proud, and I'm sure my baby will be proud of what I'm doing. They know this is what I've trained for and it's a commitment I made."