This past week, the year’s second Red Flag Exercise, known as Red Flag 17-2, came to a close after two intense weeks of training consisting of air to air, air to ground, aerial refueling, and overwatch missions. Missions were flown during the afternoons and evenings, resulting in two mass launches and two mass recoveries of aircraft each day, five days a week.
Red Flag happens four times a year, hosting the world’s elite fighter squadrons from the US Air Force, Navy, Marines, Air National Guard, NATO, and other allied nations. These groups gather to take part in ultra-realistic simulated aerial war games, which all take place at the Nevada Test and Training Range.
One participating aircraft type that really stood out from the crowd was the EA-6B Prowler operated by the US Marine Corps. This will be marked as the last Red Flag participation from any EA-6B squadron, as VMAQ-4 is set to deactivate. The squadron will be retiring its aging Prowler fleet this June, marking the end of an era for a distinguished airframe.
The amount of time and effort that goes into creating these highly realistic combat environments is unprecedented. Even when the jets are not flying, the maintainers are hard at work on the line keeping the jets ready for the next sortie. While the maintainers and pilots do their tasks, the unsung warriors are the dozens of Red Flag mission organizers that help thoroughly brief and debrief hundreds of pilots from the 15 visiting fighter and support squadrons:
Royal Netherlands Air Force
- F-16 Fighting Falcon
Spanje (Spanish Air Force)
- ALA 111 – Eurofighter EF-2000
- ALA 312 – KC-130H Hercules
Air National Guard
- 100th FS – F-16 Fighting Falcon
- 120th FS – F-16C Fighting Falcon
- 149th AVN – UH-60 Blackhawk
US Air Force – Europe
- 493d FS – F-15C/D Eagle
US Air Force
- 16th ACCS – E-8C Joint STARS
- 55th FS – F-16CJ Fighting Falcon
- 79th RQS – HC-130 Hercules/HH-60 Blackhawk
- 960th AACS – E-3 Sentry
- 91st ARS – KC-135 Stratotanker
- HSC-21 – MH-60S Seahawk
- VAW-117 – E-2C Hawkeye
US Marine Corps
- VMAQ-4 – EA-6B Prowler
Beyond the squadrons’ jet fuel-driven training, exercises also draw crowds of a different breed. Hundreds of aviation photographers travel to Nellis each Red Flag for the opportunity to photograph aircraft from squadrons they may never have the chance to see again. Squadrons such as the Spanish, Dutch, and the Lakenheath-based USAFE F-15C/Ds were on every photographer’s must-shoot list. Nothing provides a better opportunity for good photos than the almost always clear Vegas skies mixed with perfect late afternoon light.
Though 17-2 has come to a close, photographers should mark their calendars as Nellis AFB will be hosting two more Red Flag exercises during the 2017 calendar year; the first taking place mid-July (17-3), and the second in mid-August (17-4).
– Anthony Cornelius