Pilots, ground forces exercise Forward Air Controller (Airborne) mission over Estonian

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt Allie Delury
  • 31st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
At the invitation of the Estonian government, American pilots from the 510th Fighter Squadron at Aviano Air Base, Italy, have a unique opportunity to learn the value of the Forward Air Control (Airborne) mission with Estonians from Amari Air Base and U.S. instructor pilots from Luke Air Force Base.

FAC(A)s provide control of both airborne and ground forces in a close air support role and work closely with the ground commander to coordinate ground targets and de-conflict air assets. This flying training event ensures that pilots gain valuable experience with low-level flying and work with Estonian Joint Terminal Attack Controllers on the nearby Tapa Range.
"JTACs cannot be everywhere," said USMC Capt. Jonathan Bearce, F-16 Fighting Falcon exchange pilot. "A lot of things are happening on the ground and there are some inherent risks.
FAC(A)s can be that calm voice on the radio for that guy on the ground because he is in a bad situation."

Bearce is one of two U.S. FAC(A) instructor pilots from Luke Air Force Base working with 510th FS pilots in Estonia to ensure that the skillset is practiced and perfected. His previous experience as an AV-8B Harrier pilot brings a unique outlook on close air support missions to F-16 pilots.

"I enjoy bringing a little different perspective as a Marine pilot attached to an Air Force unit," said Bearce. "The students will all be better fighter pilots after going through the FAC(A) upgrade and it's always awesome to be a part of that."

Since the Vietnam War, qualifying F-16 pilots to become FAC(A)s has slowly diminished throughout the Air Force. Typically, units send FAC(A) students to the 310th Fighter Squadron for a month-long course at Luke AFB. At the request of the 510th FS, a Mobile Training Team was established to bring school house IPs to Estonia. By the end of the TDY, four pilots will be FAC(A) qualified and an additional three pilots will be FAC(A) qualified as IPs.

"I think it's great to have Luke AFB IPs out here who have a completely different perspective flying with students all the time," said Capt. Donald Davis, a 510th FS F-16 pilot who recently attended the FAC(A) course at Luke AFB. "With the Air Force constantly changing and the way things are moving, we'll be the ones who will have to keep this training going."
According to Bearce, the 510th FS is 1 of 6 F-16 squadrons that are required to be proficient in the FAC(A) mission.  Capt. Kalev Piirisild, an Estonia pilot and project officer for the Amari Air Base FTD, is helping pilots master this qualification.

Piirisild joined the flying academy in Estonia in 2006 and has always had an avid interest in other air forces and their CAS missions.
"For me, it's fairly easy to work with the U.S.," said Piirisild. "FAC(A) pilots are a really vital part of the mission, especially when you don't have people on the ground. Most FAC(A)s come from the A-10 community, but working with the 510th FS has been unique because they're an F-16 squadron."

Piirisild has been working with the 510th FS since early last year to plan this flying training event, and attributes its success to the professionalism and knowledge of the pilots.
"It's important to work with all NATO allies because if we ever go to war, we have to understand each other and understand how different nations function," said Piirisild. "The main mission is to enhance cooperation between the United States Air Force, NATO and Estonia."

With understanding cooperation on an international level comes the understanding of teamwork on a tactical level--which is why the FAC(A) mission remains a crucial skill to exercise in a foreign environment with ground forces.

"The JTAC and the FAC(A) are a team that brings a powerful punch to the battlefield," said Bearce.  "There has been nothing more rewarding in my career than working with a JTAC on the ground providing over-watch for him and his ground unit so they can go home to their families."