Pilots back in Lakenheath after Baltic air-policing mission
By WILLIAM HOWARD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 11, 2018
RAF LAKENHEATH, England — “Long time no see,” Capt. “Nacho” Taylor said to his wife from the cockpit of his fighter jet shortly after landing on base Tuesday afternoon.
It was a simple homecoming for Taylor and three other F-15C Eagle pilots returning to RAF Lakenheath from Siauliai Air Base, Lithuania, after completing their four-month deployment for NATO’s Baltic air-policing mission.
More than 140 airmen and seven fighter jets from the 493rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron carried out 172 training sorties and about 30 intercepts while safeguarding the Baltic airspace. The mission has taken on renewed importance in the wake of Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine.
“Everything was calm, cool and collected for all of the intercepts and sorties that I was a part of,” Capt. Christopher Mills, a pilot with the 493rd EFS, said.
Mills said pilots from the unit did about one-month rotations during the deployment and worked closely with their maintenance counterparts to ensure that four F-15C Eagles equipped with live ammunition were always ready.
“The adrenaline rush comes when the alert siren goes off,” Mills said. “From there you run and get into your gear as fast as you can, jump into a van and drive to the hangers, climb up the ladder into your jet, and as soon as my foot hit the seat I’m starting up the jet.”
During the deployment, airmen also trained and familiarized themselves with NATO forces from Belgium and Estonia.
“We got to see their jets and get a perspective on their operations,” said Master Sgt. Rey Oliveras, maintenance project officer for the 493rd.
“Working with NATO is very easy, and the support we received from the host nation was amazing,” Oliveras said. “Our airmen were able to interact not only with the military, but also the local community.”
The Royal Danish Air Force took over lead of the mission from the U.S. Air Force during a handover ceremony at the Lithuanian air base Monday. The remaining airmen from RAF Lakenheath are slated to return home later this week.
The Danish F-16 detachment will continue the mission for the first four months of 2018 in their sixth deployment.
“A strong and defensive alliance, NATO remains committed to the defence of allies and will continue to perform the peacetime mission of air policing, through Allied Air Command and the Combined Air Operations Centre, across the alliance and specifically in the Baltic region,” Maj. Gen. Thierry Dupont, commander of NATO’s Combined Air Operations Centre at Uedem, Germany, said during Monday’s ceremony.
A total of 45 allied air force detachments and more than 3,000 personnel have deployed near the Russian border in support of the mission for the past 14 years.