Face of Defense: Pilot Supports Ground Fighters

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. — Like many avi­a­tors, Air Force Capt. Sarah Eccles, an F-16 Fight­ing Fal­con pilot from San Anto­nio, caught the fly­ing bug at a young age. On her 15th birth­day, her father sur­prised her by tak­ing her to a Wright Fly­ers Avi­a­tion flight school.

As she sat in the cock­pit with the instruc­tor, oper­at­ing the con­trols and soar­ing through the air, Eccles said she real­ized she’d found her pas­sion.

She began tak­ing fly­ing lessons soon after that test run. At age 17, on March 20, 1999, she expe­ri­enced her first solo flight.

“It was a lit­tle intim­i­dat­ing going air­borne, being in charge of this machine,” Eccles recalled. “It’s a huge respon­si­bil­i­ty, but such a con­fi­dence builder. I thought, if I could do this, what’s next?”

After her high school grad­u­a­tion, Eccles attend­ed the Air Force Acad­e­my and then two years of pilot train­ing, where she ful­filled her dream and earned her wings as an F-16 pilot. After fly­ing the F-16 for four years, she reached a time all Air Force pilots come to: their Air Edu­ca­tion and Train­ing Com­mand lead-in fight­er train­ing, for­ward air con­troller and air liai­son offi­cer tour, also known as an “ALFA” tour.

This tour is a time when Air Force pilots take a break from fly­ing to serve in oth­er, career-broad­en­ing roles. Fight­er pilots may become instruc­tor pilots, oper­ate remote­ly pilot­ed air­craft or serve as air liai­son offi­cers, pro­vid­ing plan­ning, coor­di­na­tion, and exe­cu­tion exper­tise to mul­ti­ser­vice com­bat oper­a­tions.

“The tour is designed to bring expe­ri­enced fly­ers away from their main weapons sys­tem to oth­er jobs to use their expe­ri­ence and to gain some expe­ri­ence,” Eccles said. “The point is for pilots to broad­en their careers.”

ALFA tours gen­er­al­ly are assigned to mid- to senior-lev­el cap­tains, but occa­sion­al­ly pilots will take their tours right after pilot train­ing.

Eccles chose to be an air liai­son offi­cer for the 682nd Air Sup­port Oper­a­tions Squadron here because her hus­band, Air Force Capt. John Eccles, a 15th Air­lift Squadron C-17 Globe­mas­ter III pilot, is sta­tioned just a few hours away at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C.

Her respon­si­bil­i­ty as an ALO is to serve as the link between the Air Force and the Army in com­bat. What­ev­er the mis­sion, she is trained to help pro­vide close-air sup­port for ground forces.

Eccles was pleas­ant­ly sur­prised as she stepped away from fly­ing an F-16 and into the role of ALO, she said.

“Being an ALO has been the most per­son­al­ly sat­is­fy­ing job I’ve had in my career,” she said. “Work­ing with the enlist­ed corps is amaz­ing. As a pilot, you gen­er­al­ly don’t get to inter­act with them at this lev­el.”

The job, she added, also has giv­en her the oppor­tu­ni­ty to rest, recharge and redi­rect her ener­gy.

Through her time as an ALO, she’s had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to see how the Air Force and the Army relate and work with each oth­er.

Eccles recent­ly returned from a deploy­ment in south­west Asia, where she served as an ALO. Her job was to lead a crew respon­si­ble for direct­ing fixed-wing, close-air sup­port assets. At times, mis­sions and pri­or­i­ties would change because ground troops were attacked or ambushed.

The ALO would take “911 calls” and have a map out to orga­nize and plan the close-air sup­port, she said. Eccles was in charge of direct­ing the fight­ers to the troops on the ground who need­ed help. She said her close-air sup­port expe­ri­ence as an F-16 pilot came in handy dur­ing her deploy­ment.

On an aver­age day, Eccles’ air sup­port oper­a­tion cen­ter would receive more than 20 calls from troops in con­tact need­ing close-air sup­port, and, dur­ing one day, her team received and han­dled more than 100 calls from troops.

Because of that day and sev­er­al oth­er suc­cess­ful coor­di­nat­ed mis­sions, her crew received the 2010 Air Com­bat Com­mand Team of the Year award.

“Our proud­est moment there was being able to help out those who were in the thick of it,” Eccles said.

The expe­ri­ence gave her a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the process that goes into pro­vid­ing close-air sup­port, she said. It’s knowl­edge she will able to take back to her fight­er squadron.

The cap­tain said she will miss being an ALO when her tour is over, but she is excit­ed to be back in the air. She wish­es it were pos­si­ble to do both.

“Of course I’ve missed fly­ing,” Eccles said. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard to watch the same planes I used to com­mand fly over­head and hear the jets rat­tle the win­dows. I know I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again. My expe­ri­ence allows me to share my love of fly­ing with the 682nd.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)