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Female fighter pilots
Capt. Sarah Eccles, 682nd Air Support Operations air liaison officer, takes a look at the inside of a Humvee as Senior Airman Sylvester Matano, 682nd ASOS power production, points out parts of the engine at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., April 5, 2011. Captain Eccles is also an F-16 pilot on nonflying status during her alpha tour as an ALO. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Daniel Phelps/Released)
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More than a pilot: Providing air support from ground

Posted 6/15/2011   Updated 6/20/2011 Email story   Print story


by Airman 1st Class Daniel Phelps
20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

6/15/2011 - SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C.  -- Editor's note: This is part 3 of a 3 part series about female fighter pilots and their various roles.

Capt. Sarah Eccles, an F-16 pilot from San Antonio, Texas, like many aviators caught the flying bug at a young age. On her 15th birthday, her father surprised her by taking her to a Wright Flyers Aviation flight school.

As she sat in the cockpit with the instructor, operating the controls and soaring through the air, Capt. Eccles said she realized she'd found her passion.

She began taking flying lessons soon after that test run. On March 20, 1999, at the age of 17, she experienced her first solo flight.

"It was a little intimidating going airborne, being in charge of this machine," she recalled. "It's a huge responsibility, but such a confidence builder. I thought if I could do this, what's next?"

After graduating high school she attended the Air Force Academy, and then two years of pilot training where she fulfilled her dream and earned her wings as an F-16 pilot. After flying the F-16 for four years, she reached a time all Air Force pilots must come to: their Air Education and Training Command, lead-in fighter training, forward air controller and air liaison officer tour, also known as an "ALFA" tour.

An ALFA tour is a period in Air Force pilots' careers when they take a break from operating their aircraft to serve in other roles that benefit from their professional experiences. For example, during the tour, fighter pilots may become instructor pilots, operate remotely-piloted aircraft or serve as air liaison officers providing planning, coordination and execution expertise to multi-service combat operations.

"The tour is designed to bring experienced flyers away from their main weapons system to other jobs to use their experience and to gain some experience," said Capt. Eccles. "The point is for pilots to broaden their careers."

ALFA tours are generally assigned to mid- to senior- level captains, but occasionally pilots will serve as first assignment instructor pilot and take their tours right after pilot training.
Capt. Eccles chose to be an ALO for the 682nd Air Support Operations Squadron here because her husband, Capt. John Eccles, 15th Airlift Squadron C-17 pilot, is stationed a few hours away at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., which allows them to be stationed relatively close together.

Her responsibility as an ALO is to bring her experience to the ASOS to be the link between the Air Force and the Army in combat. Whatever the mission, she is trained help provide close air support for ground forces.

She was pleasantly surprised as she stepped away from flying an F-16 and into the role of ALO, she said.

"Being an ALO has been the most personally satisfying job I've had in my career," she said. "Working with the enlisted corps is amazing. As a pilot you generally don't get to interact with them at this level."

The job has also given her the opportunity to rest, recharge and redirect her energy, she added.

Through her time as an ALO, she has had the unique opportunity to see how the Air Force and the Army relate and work with each other.

Soon after arriving at the 682nd ASOS, Captain Eccles received deployment orders.

She showed up at the unit, completed all of her initial and mission qualifications, and deployed to OEF within three months, said Maj. Alexander Heyman, 682nd director of operations.

Her job was to lead a crew responsible for directing fixed wing CAS assets.

At times, missions and priorities would change because ground troops would be attacked or ambushed.

The ALO would take "911 calls" and have a map out to organize and plan the close air support, she said. Captain Eccles was in charge of directing the fighters to the troops on the ground who needed help. She said her CAS experience as an F-16 pilot came in very handy during her deployment.

On an average day, her air support operation center would receive more than 20 calls a day from troops in contact needing CAS.

One day during her deployment, her team received and handled more than 100 calls from troops in contact.

"Her tactical experience translated into immediate operational expertise," said Major Heyman. "She was indispensible to our success in a deployed environment and in fact led her team to be selected as ACC's Team of the Year for 2010."

"Our proudest moment there was being able to help out those who were in the thick of it," she commented.

However, it was not easy work. She worked eight hours a day, every day for her entire six-month deployment.

The experience gave her a better understanding of the process that goes into providing CAS, she said. It's knowledge that she will able to take back to her fighter squadron.

The fighter pilot said she now understands why, at times, it takes as long as it does to get the clearance to drop munitions: to minimize casualties and collateral damage. When she returns to the fighter pilot world, she said she will be able to ask better questions before providing CAS and use her leadership lessons learned to be a better leader.

Capt. Eccles said her time as an ALO has taught her many lessons in leadership, some learned the hard way.

When she worked in a fighter squadron with other pilots, she said she shared a similar mentality with them. At the ASOS, she had to adapt her leadership style to effectively communicate the variety of people with whom she worked.

The captain will miss being an ALO when her tour is over, but she will also be excited to be back in the air, she said; she wishes it were possible to do both.

"Of course I've missed flying," she said. "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't hard to watch the same planes I used to command fly overhead and hear the jets rattle the windows. I know I've done it before, and I'll do it again. My experience allows me to share my love of flying with the 682nd."

But for the time being, she continues to learn in this field, prepare for her next deployment, and love every minute of her job.

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