GRAF IGNATIEVO AIR BASE, Bulgaria --
The 74th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron completed its six-month theater security package deployment throughout Eastern Europe March 18, 2016.
Approximately 350 Airmen and 12 A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft from Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, participated in 13 events and exercises, visited 15 countries and conducted 1,193 sorties in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve.
"They've had to adjust to several different locations, lots of travelling, lots of movement, and then figuring out how to operate at a different location that has different capabilities -- sometimes not all of the capabilities that they're used to in order to do the mission," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Bryan France, 74th EFS commander. "But when it comes to actually getting the mission done, they've trained so well to it every day. So long as they're equipped for it, they're going to knock it out of the park."
France cited his squadron's ability to conduct fighter operations during winter weather on a rotational basis in Eastern Europe, execute forward air refueling point operations while doing austere landings, land on Soviet-era airfields and support detachments in six countries while operating a different number of A-10s and Airmen at each location.
He also described his squadron's partnership with the Bulgarians as one of ease, accommodation and mutual respect. Flight operations inherently produce challenges, he said, but added that face-to-face exchanges between Bulgarian and American pilots and ground controllers ultimately produce lessons learned that are far-reaching in both strategic and operational value.
"You don't want to learn those lessons in the middle of warfare," France said. "You want to learn them here in training, and we've been able to do that."
Bulgarian air force Brig. Gen. Ivan Lalov, 3rd Air Force Base commander, highlighted the bilateral partnership throughout the deployment, also known to the Bulgarians as Thracian Thunder 2016.
"I'd like to thank all of you and our other colleagues who are not here for their participation in this exercise, one of the longest exercises in our base," the general said. "Personally, I'd like to thank Lt. Col. France [for] our close cooperation. We tried to solve problems together, and I'm sure we solved them. Thanks again for your participation. We wish you success in your future."
In addition to multilateral exchanges, France talked about integrating with former Soviet Union aircraft, like the MiG 24, MiG 29 and SU-25s -- as an achievement many had been waiting their entire careers to see.
"These are all pieces of aviation that we studied as threats at one point, and we're now getting to fly with them as allies," France said. "Without having this opportunity to deploy as an EFS, we would never have seen that."
France said seeing the looks on the faces of Airmen, particularly those serving in mission support roles, when viewing the fruits of their labor was the most rewarding aspect of serving as the TSP commander.
"These are Airmen who don't always get to see the aircraft they're putting airborne by establishing communications structures, ensuring the flightline is guarded or getting cargo across country borders from Estonia to Bulgaria," France said. "Here, they got front-row seating to see what they put airborne and that mission accomplished."
With Plovdiv, Bulgaria - the City of Seven Hills - as the backdrop for their departure, the Flying Tigers snarled throughout the skies over the former Iron Curtain one final time.
They departed the same way they arrived: not under circumstances once feared during the height of the Cold War but as transatlantic partners committed to helping their NATO allies and deterring potential aggression.
While they completed just one installment in the U.S. Air Force's commitment to the security of Europe, France said he was confident about his squadron's place in the history of Operation Atlantic Resolve.
"What I can envision being written in the history books about the 74th EFS -- relative to this deployment in Operation Atlantic Resolve -- are all of the firsts that we've presented and the impact that these Airmen have made in assuring NATO alliances," France said. "These are the things you'll see happen on an operational basis later. And the people who showed that [it] can be done -- that was the 74th EFS."
To see more photos of the deployment, visit the following Flickr