PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
Aircrews and support personnel from the 200th Airlift Squadron, Colorado Air National Guard, flew two C-21 Learjet aircraft in support of a three-day North American Aerospace Defense Command air defense live-fly training exercise August 29-31, 2017, over Anchorage, Alaska.
The 200th AS, based at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, provides a significant amount of the capacity to support high-speed targeting exercises and requirements due to the unit’s proximity to NORAD, U.S. Northern Command, and Buckley AFB.
As part of the proposed budget for fiscal year 2018, the U.S. Air Force plans to transfer the COANG’s two C-21s to the Active Duty Air Force at Scott AFB, Illinois. The 200th AS will dissolve while its Airmen continue to serve in the COANG at Peterson AFB.
“At their current location in Colorado, the C-21s have multiple uses,” the Adjutant General of Colorado U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Mike Loh said. “Not only do they support the airlift requirements of both the major and combatant commands, the aircraft add critical realism to homeland defense exercises.”
The NORAD training scenario in Alaska replicated airborne intercepts of aircraft with hostile intentions using high-performance aircraft, according to the 200th AS Commander U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Derek Tate.
During the exercise, the COANG’s C-21 pilots simulated being in distress or hijacked. In response, U.S. Air Force F-22A Raptors from the 3rd Fighter Wing in Alaska conducted intercept operations of the 200th's C-21 aircraft.
“The exercise was carefully planned and closely controlled to ensure that the 611th Air Operations Center (Alaskan Air Command) and Alaska NORAD Region’s rapid response capability is fully effective,” Tate said.
NORAD has conducted exercise flights of this nature throughout the U.S. and Canada since the start of Operation Noble Eagle, the command’s response to the airborne terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“This training is vital to the pilots who sit alert around the country, ready to intercept a potential airborne threat at a moment’s notice,” Tate said.
The 200th’s fellow unit, the 120th Fighter Squadron, operates a 24/7 Aerospace Control Alert mission out of Buckley AFB. Due to the unit’s close proximity to Peterson AFB, F-16 fighter jet alert pilots rely heavily on frequent training exercises with the C-21s.
“It’s imperative that we assist with these life-like training scenarios in order for the pilots sitting alert to maintain the advanced and very specific skills required in this critical homeland defense mission,” Tate said.
The 200th's pilots plan their flights to act as "tracks of interest" during these exercises and simulate maneuvers that might necessitate a tactical intercept, according to Tate.
This type of flying is neither standard nor routine.
"The Airmen of the 200th are among the most experienced pilots in the Air Force. Our pilots have more than 3,000 military flight hours, with thousands more in commercial aircraft," 200th AS Director of Operations U.S. Air Force Maj. Brian Jacobsen said. "The experience we bring to the table means we can provide realistic training for both the fighter aircraft and air traffic controllers."
By integrating ANG members into these exercises, training is more realistic and costs less when compared to alternatives.
"This is a truly unfortunate loss for the Colorado Air National Guard," said Brig. Gen. Floyd Dunstan, Assistant Adjutant General for Air. "Not only does the 200 AS support NORAD/NORTHCOM with alert training and special missions, they are the only DV airlift unit west of the Mississippi."
With five military installations in Colorado alone and various bases across the western U.S., Peterson AFB is an ideal location to have a small airlift unit like the 200th, Dunstan said.
"It's a great capability that operates at a fraction of the cost of a comparable Active Duty unit," Dunstan explained, "and Guardsmen are the perfect fit to operate it."
Tate explains, “Most of the 200th's pilots are ‘Traditional’ Guard members who fly full-time for commercial airlines, meaning they have a lower cost to the Air Force than their Active Duty counterparts.”
"The C-21 is an ideal asset, and our aircrews are perfect for this mission,” Jacobsen said. “The aircraft are reliable and fuel-efficient, and the 200th's pilots bring unmatched experience to the Air National Guard's homeland defense mission,” Jacobsen said.