Canadian military flies south for winter exercises at MacDill
Tampa Tribune, Fla.
TAMPA — Lined up in neat rows on the flight line at MacDill Air Force Base, the 14 Royal Canadian CF-18s are the ultimate snowbirds.
Part of the 410 Tactical Fighter Operational Training Squadron, the jets have come to Tampa from Cold Lake Air Force Base in Cold Lake, Alberta, for annual spring pilot training.
The Canadian base, said Royal Canadian Air Force Lt. Col. Paul Doyle, is aptly named.
"The planes like the heat, they don't like the minus 20 as much," said Doyle, the squadron commander.
Doyle and about 140 other Canadian airmen arrived in Tampa on Saturday.
Normally, he said, the Canadians do their Florida spring training in Key West, but scheduling conflicts moved them to Tampa this year.
"It's our first time here," said Chief Warrant Officer Rick Robertson. "We're really happy."
The Canadian jets have been making about 10 flights a day since arriving. The mission, which runs through March 15, is to introduce new pilots to flying an all-purpose fighter.
About 15 instructors are teaching about 15 rookies how to start the jets, do takeoffs and, ultimately, engage in one-on-one and two-one-one dogfights.
The action takes place in Area 168, a roughly 40,000-square-mile restricted zone about 20 miles west of Sarasota.
"I love flying over the water," said Doyle, 41, who has been with the Canadian air force since 1998. "We just don't see that up in Cold Lake."
Doyle flies No. 736, marked with his nickname, Puffy.
"You make one bad call back in 1999 and it sticks with you forever," Doyle said with a sheepish grin.
All told, the jets at MacDill represent about a quarter of the Canadian fighter force, Doyle said.
Aside from pilots, the Canadians have brought mechanics and other crew members, representing about 90 percent of the Cold Lake base personnel. And in addition to the fighters, the Canadians brought an Airbus A-320 aerial refueling tanker and may bring others during their stay.
The CF-18s have garnered a lot of noise complaints from the community, said Terry Montrose, a spokesman for the 6th Air Mobility Wing, the MacDill host unit.
"That's why we put the notice out," Montrose said.
Flying out of MacDill offers pilots challenges they don't face in Cold Lake, Doyle said.
"This is busier airspace here," he said. "Cold Lake doesn't have a big city near it, with major airports."
As an example, Doyle pointed to an airship floating over downtown.
"There's a blimp," he said. "We don't have that in Cold Lake, either."
The pilots aren't the only ones gaining experience.
"This is taking people out of their comfort zone," Doyle said. "The sergeants have to show a whole new level of leadership as we are no longer at our home base."
The Canadian air force routinely patrols the country's northern borders and flew in support of the overthrow of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi but did not fly in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Though busy flying and maintaining the planes, the Canadians also get a chance to see some of Tampa.
"We went to Skipper's Smokehouse and we had gator ribs and gator tail and great Key lime pie," Robertson said. "It was the first time any of us had gator before."
"About 10 of us are going to Crystal River Sunday to swim with the manatees," he said.
The planes aren't the only beneficiaries of Tampa's warm weather.
Taking a break from doing a preflight engine check, Cpl. Josh Stennett showed off something that would never be seen on the flight line in February at Cold Lake.
The Blink 182 tattoo on his left arm, visible because he was wearing a short-sleeve shirt.
"I would be bundled up like the Michelin Man back up north," said Stennett, 28, an engine tech. "But not down here. The weather is beautiful."