Sleet, sorties and fresh salmon: Ohio guardsmen deploy to NATO’s edge
By MARTIN EGNASH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 13, 2018
TALLINN, Estonia — Most people wouldn’t leave a $40 million vehicle outside under a foot of snow. But most people don’t have to.
The Ohio Air National Guardsmen maintaining their F-16 fighter jets amid a northern Baltic winter do have one small Soviet-era hangar, scheduled for demolition, that they use sparingly. Normally, they keep their planes out on the flight line.
“You have to work a little slower and make sure everything is ready, and safe, but it hasn’t taken away from our training,” said Senior Master Sgt. Tim Golden.
Earlier this week, seven fresh pilots joined the 300 Air Force personnel who are midway through their busy deployment practicing dogfighting above the Baltic Sea as part of the U.S. Theater Security Package. The mission brought 12 F-16 fighter jets to Estonia’s Amari Air Base to train with NATO allies and partner nations in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve.
The jets have been flying an average of about 60 missions every week. NATO has had an air policing mission over the three small Baltic nations — which don’t have fighter jets — since 2004.
The Midwestern men and women working here are no strangers to wintry weather missions, though they say Estonia is significantly icier than back home.
One reason the weather hasn’t been too bad for them is the Estonian deicing equipment, which is hailed as the “best in NATO” by the airmen.
“It’s really impressive to watch them clear away ice and snow,” Golden said, who described the synchronized movements of the de-icing vehicles as “watching an opera.”
The deployment is not all work and cold, though. Due to the lack of facilities at Amari Air Base, the airmen are staying in swank but affordable hotels in downtown Tallinn, where they get the opportunity to see the old town, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“The old town is the main place where everyone goes after work,” Staff Sgt. Devon Childress said. “It’s just a few minutes away, and has some amazing sights, great food and a lot to do.”
So far, several of them have thoroughly enjoyed the local delicacies, like freshly caught salmon, beet and apple salad, and a heavy use of dill seasoning, he said.
The local drink of choice, Vana Tallinn, a rum-based liqueur that tastes like cinnamon, has gone down less smoothly for the Americans, Childress said: “It’s too sweet for American taste buds, but it’s something you have to try when you come here.”
The Americans have also seen the former Soviet submarine base nearby and medieval castles that belonged to Teutonic Knights from the 13th century.
“It’s important that the airmen get out and explore the area,” Golden said. “The one thing you don’t want is to have 300 (airmen) sitting around bored with nothing to do. That’s when something (bad) happens.”
Theater Security Packages like these took shape after Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Since then, contingents of airmen have spent similar quick deployments elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
This is the first security package to bring F-16s to Estonia.
The local servicemembers are happy to see the U.S. airmen bringing so much firepower to aid their defense, Golden said.
“You can tell they are very supportive of us being here,” Golden said. “They know why we are here, and why it’s so important that we have a forward presence in the region.”