U.S., Bulgarian Airmen strengthen ties during exercise

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy (AFNS) — More than 500 U.S. Air­men and two dozen F‑16 Fight­ing Fal­cons from the 31st Fight­er Wing here recent­ly returned from a deploy­ment to Graf Ignatie­vo Air Base, Bul­gar­ia, where they spent a month con­duct­ing bi-lat­er­al train­ing with Bul­gar­i­an Air­men dur­ing Thra­cian Star 2012.

Staff Sgt. Alexan­der Wiec­zorek, 31st Air­craft Main­te­nance Squadron crew chief, pre­pares a 510th Fight­er Squadron pilot for a launch May 20 at Graf Ignatie­vo Air Base, Bul­gar­ia, dur­ing Thra­cian Star 2012. Air­craft main­tain­ers spent six or more hours per­form­ing post-flight main­te­nance on F‑16s after each of the 556 sor­ties launched dur­ing the coali­tion train­ing exer­cise. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Senior Air­man Kather­ine Windish)
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The exer­cise was the largest of its kind host­ed at Graf Ignatie­vo since Bul­gar­ia joined the NATO alliance in 2004 and includ­ed both Aviano fight­er squadrons from Aviano Air Base, along with sup­port per­son­nel from sev­er­al oth­er 31st FW units. It was geared toward increas­ing inter­op­er­abil­i­ty and strength­en­ing part­ner­ships between the nations.

“As a NATO part­ner, we could be called upon to fight in a con­flict togeth­er and know­ing how each oth­er trains and fights gives a lit­tle bit of insight into how would we inte­grate, and how would we be inter­op­er­a­ble as a com­bined force,” said Lt. Col. Michael Thomp­son, 510th FS com­man­der.

Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, U.S. Air Forces in Europe com­man­der, vis­it­ed Bul­gar­ia dur­ing the exer­cise and agreed that the train­ing was ben­e­fi­cial to both nations.

“It’s about build­ing trust, it’s about learn­ing from each oth­er, and it’s about prov­ing that we have the capa­bil­i­ty to deploy in an aus­tere envi­ron­ment,” Welsh said. “It’s a fan­tas­tic oppor­tu­ni­ty for us.”

Amer­i­can and Bul­gar­i­an pilots flew togeth­er dai­ly, com­plet­ing 556 sor­ties over 16 fly­ing days between April 17 and May 11, prac­tic­ing close air sup­port mis­sions, basic fight­er and air com­bat maneu­vers, tac­ti­cal inter­cepts, defen­sive counter air and large force mis­sions with Bul­gar­i­an MiG-21 and MiG-29 pilots.

“The key phrase here is ‘increas­ing inter­op­er­abil­i­ty’ — that was one of the goals in this exer­cise, and we cer­tain­ly accom­plished that and more,” said Lt. Col. Karl Inge­man, 555th FS com­man­der. “The joint train­ing was invalu­able for both our air forces and we both learned how to work togeth­er while accom­plish­ing both the air to air and air to ground mis­sions. The Bul­gar­i­an air­space and ranges were fan­tas­tic for train­ing and it was a great expe­ri­ence that helped strength­en the alliance between our nations.”

The muni­tions, air­craft main­te­nance and main­te­nance oper­a­tions squadrons worked joint­ly dur­ing the exer­cise, build­ing and load­ing bombs and ammu­ni­tion to be used for air-to-ground sor­ties, dur­ing which 536 bombs were dropped and 9,250 rounds of 20 mil­lime­ter ammu­ni­tion were expelled at the local range.

With six or more hours of main­te­nance required per sor­tie, 31st Air­craft Main­te­nance Squadron per­son­nel worked around the clock through­out Thra­cian Star to keep air­craft fly­ing.

“We as a wing have nev­er deployed both fight­er squadrons and air­craft main­te­nance units to the same base with the num­ber of peo­ple and air­craft we took in sup­port of Thra­cian Star 2012,” Dubovik added. “This real­ly test­ed and val­i­dat­ed the wing’s abil­i­ty to deploy in large num­bers and oper­ate togeth­er as one unit. Addi­tion­al­ly, it was a tremen­dous oppor­tu­ni­ty for our Air­men to work along­side their Bul­gar­i­an coun­ter­parts, and to see both the sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences between our two Air Forces. At the end of the day, we’re all Air­men and all main­tain­ers shar­ing the same goals and chal­lenges.”

Capt. Aman­da McFeeters, 510th Air­craft Main­te­nance Unit offi­cer in charge, agreed, also stat­ing, “We nor­mal­ly oper­ate in two sep­a­rate loca­tions. Com­bin­ing main­te­nance oper­a­tions for the Buz­zards (510th FS) and the Nick­el (555th FS) in about half the amount of space that we nor­mal­ly oper­ate out of was one of the biggest chal­lenges. I required every­one to be hyper vig­i­lant and aware of their sur­round­ings.”

The 31st Logis­tics Readi­ness Squadron was also a key com­po­nent to the fly­ing mis­sion, with the petro­le­um, oils and lubri­cants flight pump­ing approx­i­mate­ly 40,000 gal­lons of air­craft fuel per day.

Mem­bers of the 31st LRS were also respon­si­ble for pack­ing, ship­ping, track­ing and unload­ing all equip­ment and per­son­nel, the mag­ni­tude of which required months of plan­ning and prepa­ra­tion. Every­thing from air­craft parts and life sup­port equip­ment to fire engines and fuel trucks was packed into 59 car­go trucks and four C‑130s and added up to 710 tons of car­go shipped from Italy and Ram­stein Air Base, Ger­many, to sup­port the mis­sion in Bul­gar­ia.

With more than 500 per­son­nel deployed from Aviano, near­ly every unit from the 31st Fight­er Wing was rep­re­sent­ed in Bul­gar­ia, includ­ing mem­bers of the 603rd Air Con­trol Squadron who pro­vid­ed essen­tial com­mu­ni­ca­tions sup­port. The mobile com­mu­ni­ca­tions unit arrived 10 days before the main body of deployed per­son­nel and spent more than 400 hours set­ting up net­work con­nec­tions, phone sys­tems, radios and cell phones.

“It can appear a big task, but every­one has their own job so it all went pret­ty smooth­ly,” said Capt. Denise Shea, 603rd ACS mis­sion sys­tems flight com­man­der. “When you first get there, it’s a mat­ter of find­ing all your equip­ment and get­ting all set up. Then you get start­ed and your train­ing kicks in and it becomes sec­ond nature.”

Each and every Air­man did their part, from air­craft main­tain­ers and weapons load­ers to logis­tics per­son­nel and com­mu­ni­ca­tions spe­cial­ists, as not­ed by the USAFE com­man­der dur­ing his vis­it.

“My USAFE Air­men rock, every day, every­where, and they did the same thing here,” Welsh said. “They’re fan­tas­tic. They’re doing great work and they’re rep­re­sent­ing not just USAFE but our Air Force and our nation as well.”

U.S. Air Force