Darrell Todd Maurina
CANNON AIR FORCE BASE — Six pilots and about 155 support personnel are on their way to an undisclosed country in the Arabian Gulf for a special training exercise with local Arab air forces.
About 3 a.m. Saturday, 10 jets from Cannon’s 522nd Fighter Squadron, including one piloted by base commander Col. Robert Yates, took off for an eight-hour trip to a mid-Atlantic base where they were to refuel and wait for the main body of support personnel to join them and do any needed maintenance. Early Sunday morning, the remaining support staff took off in a KC-10 personnel transport plane. Both groups are expected to land early this week in the Arabian Gulf for the 30-day exercise.
Not all of the 10 jets will arrive at the Gulf — four are “air spares” intended as replacements in case one of the jets breaks down en route.
Squadron commander Lt. Col. Mark Altobelli, a veteran of the first Gulf War as well as the Northern Watch and Southern Watch operations that enforced the “no-fly” zone over Iraq, said he looks forward to being back in the Middle East and training with allied military forces, not all of which use the F-16 planes that are being flown at Cannon or the same models of F-16 with the same capabilities.
“They will be using a variety of equipment,” Altobelli said. “One of the great advantages is going out and training with dissimilar aircraft. We rarely get to train with dissimilar aircraft.”
Altobelli said his pilots will also be training in close air support missions with Army troops, learning how to support Army combat operations on the ground by destroying enemy forces.
After more than 28 years in the Air Force, Chief Master Sgt. Charles Hoover said he looks forward to helping his airmen, nearly 80 percent of whom have never been in a combat zone deployment, learn how to get ready for a wartime situation.
Hoover said one of his greatest challenges is teaching young airmen how to behave in a traditional Middle Eastern culture.
“The way we do things in America is for the most part unacceptable in the Middle East,” Hoover said. “For many of them, this is a totally new experience.”
Yates, who had to stay behind during Operation Iraqi Freedom while one of his squadrons took a leading role in the “shock and awe” bombing campaign that started the assault, said he’s very happy to be accompanying a squadron on a flight mission. Yates won’t stay for the whole exercise and is expected to return to Cannon after about a week overseas.
“I feel like I’m where I ought to be, going in the right direction,” Yates said. “This is what the Air Force is all about.”
Yates said he’s looking forward to spending more time in the Middle East where he’s been deployed before. This time, unlike previous deployments, the Cannon personnel won’t be staying in portable tent cities set up in the desert. Yates said the host country is treating its visitors to accommodations that are better than they find in American military bases.
“They are hosting us in their own temporary quarters — they are better than our temporary living quarters,” Yates said. “It’ll be a first for us.”