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Tech. Sgt. Christian Jensen, left, and Airman 1st Class Ryan Schaffer work together during the 14th Fighter Squadron's recent close air support training at Misawa Air Base, Japan. Jensen, a joint tactical air controller, and Schaffer, a radio operator maintainer and driver, are assigned to Camp Red Cloud, South Korea. Their job is to help guide pilots' eyes on a target or situation on the ground.

Tech. Sgt. Christian Jensen, left, and Airman 1st Class Ryan Schaffer work together during the 14th Fighter Squadron's recent close air support training at Misawa Air Base, Japan. Jensen, a joint tactical air controller, and Schaffer, a radio operator maintainer and driver, are assigned to Camp Red Cloud, South Korea. Their job is to help guide pilots' eyes on a target or situation on the ground. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

Tech. Sgt. Christian Jensen, left, and Airman 1st Class Ryan Schaffer work together during the 14th Fighter Squadron's recent close air support training at Misawa Air Base, Japan. Jensen, a joint tactical air controller, and Schaffer, a radio operator maintainer and driver, are assigned to Camp Red Cloud, South Korea. Their job is to help guide pilots' eyes on a target or situation on the ground.

Tech. Sgt. Christian Jensen, left, and Airman 1st Class Ryan Schaffer work together during the 14th Fighter Squadron's recent close air support training at Misawa Air Base, Japan. Jensen, a joint tactical air controller, and Schaffer, a radio operator maintainer and driver, are assigned to Camp Red Cloud, South Korea. Their job is to help guide pilots' eyes on a target or situation on the ground. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

Airman 1st Class William Spiak, a radio operator maintainer and driver from Camp Red Cloud, South Korea, uses a laser range finder to help mark a target during recent close air support training at Misawa Air Base, Japan

Airman 1st Class William Spiak, a radio operator maintainer and driver from Camp Red Cloud, South Korea, uses a laser range finder to help mark a target during recent close air support training at Misawa Air Base, Japan (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Capt. Ben Bartlett came "this close" to dropping a bomb during his first sortie in Iraq. He recalls holding his breath for what seemed like an hour.

That was in early 2007, when the 14th Fighter Squadron sent the first F-16 Block 50s to provide close air support to U.S. Army and other ground units fighting in Iraq.

With the 14th about to head downrange again, Bartlett, 31, of Miami, knows there’s little time for on-the-job training in combat.

The Samurai ramped up their preparations last week with "Diesel Weasel," an exercise to practice close air support skills. Throwing a mix of scenarios at them was Bartlett, who’s now the 35th Fighter Wing chief of inspections.

Over five days and nights, Bartlett used volunteer airmen to fill in as actors on the ground. Rounding out the troupe were joint tactical air controllers, or JTACs, and their radio operator maintainer assistants from Camp Red Cloud, South Korea — doing their real jobs.

"The way to get better is to practice," Bartlett said. "We didn’t have this training last time. We had to learn as we went."

Bartlett said following a convoy is tough.

"There are so many moving parts," he said.

Flying thousands of feet overhead, the pilot has to track small objects that can be obstructed by buildings or trees while keeping the jet straight and level and out of his wingman’s crosshairs.

After two days of convoy escort and ambush scenarios, Wednesday’s training focused on building raid scenarios.

"We’ve heard the insurgents have re-massed and we’re going to go back in there and try to find some personnel from earlier," Master Sgt. Scott Myers, 37, a joint tactical air controller from San Jose, Calif., radioed to a gray speck of a jet.

Airmen ran into an empty building, some holding wooden props for guns. A few smoke grenades were set off, "a visual cue that lets them (pilots) know what they’re looking at is the bad guys," Bartlett said.

After the building was cleared, Bartlett had one airman escape on foot, the other in a truck.

The JTAC’s job is to help put the pilot’s eyes on a target. Sometimes, a pilot, from his vantage in the sky and with advanced cockpit technology, can see things a JTAC can’t.

"Pretend you don’t know where it is," Bartlett told Myers, referring to the fleeing truck.

The pilot helped Myers find the truck, which was parked just up the road. Bartlett, acting as ground commander, told Myers to give the order to take it out.

Given the proximity of friendly forces, "a lot of decisions are going on up there," Bartlett said. "You have to be very judicious in how you use your weapons."

After the exercise wrapped for the afternoon, Bartlett headed to the 14th Fighter Squadron "vault" to review the jet’s video footage to see how spot-on the pilots were.

About 80 sorties would be flown by week’s end, he said, with the less-experienced aviators flying more. Bartlett was already thinking about the next round of training scheduled for that night.

"I might spice it up a bit," he said.

author picture
Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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