GRAF IGNATIEVO, Bulgaria --
After two months of being split across four countries, approximately 250 U.S. Air Force and Massachusetts Air National Guard Airmen from the 131st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron reunited at Graf Ignatievo, Bulgaria, May 27.
The Airmen, originally assigned to the 104th Fighter Wing, Barnes Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts, deployed to the European theater April 3, as part of a theater security package to Iceland, Estonia, the Netherlands and Bulgaria in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve.
Four of the 104th FW’s F-15C Eagle fighter aircraft and nearly 100 Airmen deployed to Keflavik Air Base, Iceland, to augment Icelandic Air Surveillance under the TSP designation.
At the same time, eight F-15s and 150 personnel and equipment deployed to Leeuwarden Air Base, Netherlands, to participate in Frisian Flag 2016 and conduct training alongside NATO allies and partners.
A few of the 131st EFS’s F-15s at both locations are on loan from the 144th Fighter Wing, Fresno ANG Base, California.
While deployed to Keflavik Air Base, the Bay State guardsmen acted as rotational stateside total force Airmen reinforcing existing U.S. Air Force capabilities to show a forward presence in Europe. Since 2008, the U.S. Air Force has conducted an air surveillance mission there as part of NATO’s commitment to Iceland’s security and defense.
The IAS mission compared to the alert mission in Massachusetts, said U.S. Air Force and Massachusetts ANG Lt. Col. Jeffrey Beckel, 131st EFS detachment commander for the Icelandic mission.
“We were sitting with live loaded jets ready to intercept in the region if needed,” he said.
Members of the 131st EFS at Leeuwarden Air Base commenced flying operations April 11-16, participating in Frisian Flag under the scope of Operation Atlantic Resolve. The multi-national large force operation included personnel and aircraft from the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Finland, Poland, Norway, United Kingdom, Germany and Australia.
“We were in the Netherlands to support our NATO allies and also for Frisian Flag, where we integrated with coalition partners for a multidimensional exercise,” said U.S. Air Force and Massachusetts ANG Maj. Benjamin Gilluly, a 131st EFS F-15 pilot.
Guardsmen stationed at Keflavik later forward-deployed to Amari Air Base, Estonia, while guardsmen stationed at Leeuwarden forward-deployed to Bulgaria.
In conjunction with Operation Atlantic Resolve, at Amari Air Base, Estonia, the wing’s F-15Cs flew alongside Estonian Defense Force L-39 Albatross fighter aircraft, British Royal Air Force Typhoon FGR4 fighter aircraft and Polish air force Su-22 fighter aircraft. They also participated in Estonia’s Spring Storm exercise May 2-20, 2016, which represented the country’s largest of its kind this year, comprising of approximately 6,000 soldiers and personnel from nine NATO countries.
“It was an air-to-ground exercise, and our mission was to provide top cover for the forces on the ground,” said U.S. Air Force and Massachusetts ANG Lt. Col. Matthew Woodfield, 131st EFS F-15 pilot. “It depended on the day which side we would be on – good or bad.”
Working out of Bulgaria, 104th FW fighter pilots are currently participating in Thracian Flag, an exercise featuring Bulgarian air force MIG-29s, SU-25s and L-39 fighter aircraft and ground-based, air defense in integrated flying scenarios.
“It’s important for us to have U.S. forces here; we are not able to create a realistic tactical picture to fight on our own,” said Bulgarian air force Lt. Col. Metodi Orlov, Graf Ignatievo operations officer. “The National Guard is helping us receive a good sense of modern warfare.”
U.S. Air Force and Massachusetts ANG Lt. Col. David Halasi-Kun, 131st EFS commander, said his Airmen, both when in the Netherlands and now in Bulgaria, conducted and will conduct all phases of small- and large-scale air-to-air training.
“Our goal is to build partnerships with our NATO allies through joint training exercises and operations,” he said.
Guardsmen arriving from Estonia to Bulgaria will join their 104th FW counterparts and will remain in place until the end of June when the 144th FW takes over the TSP mission utilizing eight Massachusetts F-15s.