KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
The Air Force Reserve’s 815th Airlift Squadron returned April 20 from Aviano Air Base, Italy, after participating in the U.S. Army Europe’s Saber Junction 16 exercise since April 5.
Saber Junction is the Army’s annual combat training center certification exercise to evaluate the readiness of the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
The exercise, which included nearly 5,000 participants from 16 nations, featured a multi-battalion, multi-national airborne jump, followed by several days of air-land operations on the Army’s Hohenfels Training Area's Short Take-off and Landing air strip.
Two crews from the 815th AS, referred to as the “Flying Jennies,” showcased the C-130J Super Hercules’ air drop and air land insertion capability airdropping 112 of the 3,095 paratroopers and providing 60 of the 200 short tons delivered during the exercise. While Saber Junction took place in Germany, the “Jennies,” along with air assets from other nations as well as various Air Force active-component, Reserve and Air National Guard units, were staged at Aviano.
The 815th AS is a tactical airlift unit assigned to the 403rd Wing at Keesler and transports supplies, equipment and personnel in and around a theater of operation. The squadron flies 10 C-130J aircraft which can operate from dirt strips and are prime transport for airdropping troops and equipment into hostile areas.
Exercises such as this are great training for the unit, said Lt. Col. Stephanie Brown and Maj. Jeff Smith, the two aircraft commanders who, with their crews, took part in the event.
“Saber Junction is a large-scale exercise to demonstrate the 173rd’s combat capability and interoperability,” said Brown. “Our piece of this was to provide airlift to their paratroopers and to also do tactical insertion of their ground equipment onto a small STOL, or short-take-off and landing field.”
For the first portion of the exercise, Brown and her crew airdropped the 173rd Airborne Brigade commander and 55 troopers who were the logistics specialists to handle and protect the ground assets being air dropped, she said.
Smith and his crew took part in a five-ship formation of C-130Js, which included an aircraft from Great Britain.
“We … made several passes dropping personnel,” he said. “It was awesome to see this mass insertion of troops.”
It was a total 3,095 troops, which was the largest airdrop of personnel in Europe since World War II, said Brown.
The last three days included tactical insertion, said Brown. “Flying Jenny” crews delivered heavy equipment to include five Humvees, three mortar carts and an additional 40 personnel.
“We landed on dirt strip in the middle of nowhere,” said Brown. “It was this tiny 3,000-foot strip surrounded by trees. We would off load as quickly as possible and take off again.”
Smith added that landing on the rough gravel runway with heavy loads of equipment was a challenge, but one the crews excelled at.
“The loadmasters did an outstanding job in off-loading aircraft really fast,” he said. “We were wheels down, wheels up … in about 12 minutes. It was well executed.”
An H-model C-130 is limited to hauling about 30,000 pounds of equipment whereas the newer J-model the “Jennies” fly brought in loads as heavy as 47,000 pounds.
“We can bring in more, and we can do it faster because of our times in route. And, it’s a lot safer from a combat perspective, because we can get off the ground faster,” said Brown. “There is a great deal of capability in what the 815th can bring to the fight.”
Reflecting on their training over the last couple of weeks, Brown and Smith said they were honored to take part in such a large-scale training event.
“To be part of something that magnanimous was amazing,” said Brown. “The Army put forth a lot of equipment and personnel and obviously dedication to enable this to happen. And then, of course, 21 aircraft from 10 different active, Reserve, and Air National Guard units were key to the success of providing the Army the force and the supplies they needed. We were the logistics chain; you can’t drive through the Italian Alps and Austria and get it (the equipment) there. We brought it. It was really amazing to be part of that.”
Smith added that he said it meant a lot to him personally to get to participate in this exercise as a “red” tail.
Smith and other members of the “Flying Jennies” family have gone through some uncertainty in the last few years. As part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013, the Air Force announced planned to transfer 10 of the 403rd Wing's C-130J aircraft, which is what the squadron flies. A 2015 report from the Secretary of the Air Force reversed that recommendation, beginning the programming and budgeting work to restore personnel and mission capability at Keesler. That restoration has begun.
“With everything going on with us, and standing back up … it was great to be able to jump back in the game as an 815th member and to be successful,” he said.