Home on the Range – Airburst Range provides critical training to all services

  • Published
  • By Capt. Kinder Blacke
  • 140th Wing Public Affairs
It's easy to recognize the sound of the 140th Wing's F-16s flying overhead, yet while they are the most conspicuous component of the wing's mission, there are many other aspects that warrant recognition. This feature is the first in a series that will recognize the people in the 140th Wing, Colorado Air National Guard, who work hard every day to ensure our mission is a success!

Out in the rolling hills of Southern Colorado, where rattlesnakes and prairie dogs roam freely, lie two quaint little Middle Eastern-like villages that the common passer-by wouldn't even notice.

Upon closer investigation, these "villages" are actually not at all inhabitable as they are merely constructed from freight car boxes and scrap materials, put together to resemble villages in deployed locations and used for training purposes.

These "villages," Abu Mango and Abu Pyro, are just two focal points on the 845-acre plot of land out near Pueblo, Colo. known as the 140th Wing's Airburst Range. In addition to the mock-villages, scattered throughout the vast range are a handful of SAM-sites, a runway, various types of bunkers, retired vehicles and other training materials strategically built and laid out to create a realistic training model.

In charge of creating and maintaining the range and conducting operations is the Airburst Range Commander, Lieutenant Col. John "Pyro" Stevenson, 140th Operations Support Squadron.

Stevenson and his 11-man team make the long commute out to the range almost every day to maintain the grounds and meet operational training objectives. According to Stevenson, in an average year, the team works with and supports every service branch except the Coast Guard, and even provides a training platform for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

"Training at the range covers a full spectrum of operations, both air and ground," said Stevenson.

His right-hand man, Senior Master Sgt. Manuel Gomez, non-commissioned officer in charge of the range, 140 OSS, agrees. "We provide training for all services and missions," he said. But it hasn't always been that way.

Gomez has been working at the range for twelve years and has watched it morph from a place to practice basic bombing and a little close air support to a multi-faceted training facility for all aspects of combat. "As times have changed, so have we," he said. "Although we were conceived to be an F-16 training area, we train everything from F-16s and A-10s to Army helicopter attack and door gun training," he explained. "In short, we see and support every facet of military training our nation needs."

As for the air side of the spectrum, "F-16 sorties from Buckley account for about forty percent of our annual usage depending on training cycles," Stevenson said.

The pilots fly out to the range to practice various types of air-to-ground attacks, including laser-guided bomb drops and firing the twenty millimeter gun. They practice communication tactics with troops on the ground and refine target recognition skills using the various structures and vehicles on the range, he explained.

Range operators attempt to simulate the real-world combat zone as closely as possible, even to the point of targeting moving vehicles and people, challenging the pilots to push to the limits of their capabilities.

"The range is critical to the wing's training mission because we can provide real world training scenarios such as moving vehicles and people, and target sets to meet any training objective," Gomez said. "Train like you fight-- that's what we try to bring to all our customers."

This is particularly crucial right now as the 140th Wing gears up for a real-world deployment.

"We are able to provide F-16 pilots with the best possible training for deployment," said Stevenson, who is also an F-16 pilot with the wing's 120th Fighter Squadron. "We keep our thumb on the pulse of training in order to tailor range operations to fit the needs of the squadron," he added.

While all ordnance expended at Airburst Range is inert, a bomb dropped from an F-16 that is too high up to see with the naked eye can still do an impressive amount of damage. The range is covered with the collateral damage and remnants of bomb drops and structures are freckled with bullet holes. There is no questioning the amount of training that has occurred on the range or the accuracy and effectiveness of the weapons.

While the jets may make quite a stir, the other sixty percent of the range's annual usage includes various other aircraft training and critical operations.

"We provide a training ground for all types of helicopter missions to include door gunnery, forward firing rockets and thirty millimeter cannons," Stevenson explained. "We support air to ground bomb and gun deliveries from all types of fighter aircraft, and we support C-130 airdrops to include heavy pallets and personnel drops."

The primary ground users are Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, who learn to communicate with aircraft, including F-16s, to coordinate close air support during combat missions. "We also support Army Special Forces in small unit tactics combined with the use of air assets," said Stevenson.

Additionally, security forces conduct small arms and heavy machine gun qualifications, and the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team from Peterson Air Force Base trains at the range. "There are many more missions, but this gives you an idea of the diversity we see at Airburst Range," Stevenson said.

With such a wide variety of training objectives to accommodate, it's a constant effort to keep building and re-building the training models to keep up with the changing deployed environments and scenarios. "The range crew is dedicated to providing the best, most realistic training possible for all customers, no matter what rank or service, anywhere," said Gomez.

"We design our targets and the profiles we can accommodate based on the requests from our users," Stevenson said. "We strive to be as dynamic as possible in order to get warfighters the training they need for their upcoming deployments."

Under the constraints of a very limited budget, the range team works with materials donated from various organizations to build realistic training settings. "All target arrays are built and maintained by the crew at Airburst," said Gomez.

In addition to building targets and scenarios, the guys on the range are fully employed with range maintenance, grading roads, grading firebreaks, scheduling missions, radio maintenance, vehicle and heavy equipment fleet maintenance, and taking care of the pigs.

Indeed, to add to the attraction of Airburst Range, the group has adopted two pot-bellied pigs, Hamlet and Chewy, to keep rattlesnakes out of the main operations area and boost morale of the Airmen who often spend long hours at the range.

With such diverse training objectives to accommodate, "we work days, nights, and extra weekends to support training," Gomez confirmed, "sometimes two to three weekends a month."

"The range is a very unique working environment," Stevenson said. "The guys spend a lot of time out here in the middle of nowhere--they can't go out to lunch or enjoy the amenities of working on base; they work long days and lots of extra hours with little recognition, so we do what we can to keep spirits up."

The one building facility on the property includes individual office spaces, a full kitchen, showers, and a workout room, much like a fire station. Despite the long days and odd hours, the general consensus of the range crew is that they enjoy their work and they truly do feel at "home on the range."