News>Feature - 20th FW opens, closes chapter in U.S. military history
U.S. Air Force Col. Rodney Petithomme, 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group commander, and Lt. Col. Jason Plourde, 79th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander, walk off the flightline after piloting the last two combat aircraft over Iraq Dec. 18, 2011. Flying F-16s, they provided top cover for the last convoys leaving the country. Petithomme is a native of Angels Camp, Calif., and is deployed from Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea. Plourde is a native of Hermon, Maine, and is deployed from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Rusty Ridley/Released)
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jason Plourde, 79th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander and Col. Rodney Petithomme, 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group commander, shake hands after flying the last two combat aircraft over Iraq Dec. 18, 2011. Piloting F-16s, they provided top cover for the last convoys leaving the country. Petithomme is a native of Angels Camp, Calif., and is deployed from Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea. Plourde is a native of Hermon, Maine, and is deployed from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Rusty Ridley/Released)
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Manuel Beckett and Senior Airman Caleb Holmes, 332nd Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chiefs, complete checklists after the return of F-16 Fighting Falcons flown in conjunction with the final combat mission over Iraq Dec. 18, 2011. Beckett is a native of Hampton, S.C., and Holmes is a native of Camp Bell, N.Y. They are both deployed from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Rusty Ridley/Released)
U.S. Air Force Col. Rodney Petithomme, 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group commander, speaks with Senior Airman Caleb Holmes, 332nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, after piloting the last combat mission over Iraq Dec. 18, 2011. Petithomme is a native of Angels Camp, Calif., and is deployed from Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea. Holmes is a native of Camp Bell, N.Y., and is deployed from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Rusty Ridley/Released)
by Senior Airman Daniel Phelps
20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
6/26/2012 - SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- Early in the morning, on Dec. 18, 2011, a two-ship of U.S. Air Force F-16s patrolled the skies over Iraq, ensuring the safety of American servicemembers as the last U.S. convoy cruised down the road toward the Kuwait border.
The sun was very low on the horizon and the shadows from the vehicles stretched across the desert, said. Lt. Col. Jason Plourde, 79th "Tigers" Fighter Squadron commander and flight lead for the last two-ship.
"It was a very clear day," he continued. "On many days in southern Iraq, the ground would be obscured by dust and clouds. On this day, from my location in the air, I could see Kuwait City and the Gulf. Obviously, I could see the ground and the convoy too."
Once the final vehicle officially crossed the border, the gate was closed and all was clear, we were cleared to return to base, Plourde concluded.
"To see that last convoy exit Iraq actually reminded me of when I saw the first convoys enter Iraq in 2003," he added. "It was a very surreal experience."
As they left the air space, after more than 20 years of continued military air operations over the nation of Iraq, a major chapter in U.S. military history came to an end.
Beginning with some of the first jets to fly into Iraqi air space during Operation Desert Storm and concluding with those final aircraft out of Iraq on Dec. 18, 2011, the 20th Fighter Wing has played a vital role as the first in and last out in this chapter in history.
"The end of this was the end of more than 20 years of U.S. Air Force operations in Iraq," Plourde said. "That is longer than most of our (Airmen) have been in the Air Force, myself included. For most of us, preparing for and deploying in support of operations in Iraq have been a big part of what we have done and what know.
"With the conclusion of our operations in Iraq, it means a new chapter can begin not only for the country of Iraq, but for the U.S. Air Force as well. However, it doesn't signify a change to our focus or to the capabilities we bring to the fight in support of combatant commanders," Plourde continued.
"It was a sigh of relief when that last plane landed," said 1st Lt. Bernard Conrad, 79th "Tigers" Aircraft Maintenance Unit Officer in Charge.
It took a lot of work to get to that point of the last jet landing, Conrad added. To begin the deployment, the Tigers arrived at a base that had not been used for in that role for nearly 10 years.
"Before we arrived, there was little to nothing there for us to use because it was a bare base," Conrad explained. "From an aircraft maintenance perspective, we had to bring in nearly everything to use from scratch to start operations. That required a lot of planning and a lot more movement of equipment and personnel then there would be at an established location. A fighter unit has not started up a base for combat operations recently."
The night before the jets arrived at their deployed location, Conrad remembered how everyone on the base came together to prepare the ramp.
"They were out there with equipment and fire hoses, and even cleaning stuff off by hand to ensure the jets would land safely," he described.
During those last couple months over Iraq, the 79th FS flew more than 4,000 hours, Conrad commented. And on top of all that, the Tigers ensured every mission tasking was met.
"That is something units rarely achieve," Conrad said.
For the final part of their time there, the Tigers were the only Air Force manned fighter aircraft left in the theater, Conrad continued. At times, they flew as much as 14 missions per day.
"It was all on us," he said. "Our jets were launching and flying at all hours of the day and night to ensure the guys on the ground were safe."
Every couple of hours, two jets would be sent up to swap out with the guys in the air, Conrad continued. They would come down, get fixed up and sent back out.
"It was a lot of work over a short period of time," he described. "This was a continuous cycle of fixing-flying, fixing-flying that did not end until the mission officially ended."
The constant flying put a lot of stress on the jets, Conrad went on. It took a lot of attention to detail and thinking ahead to ensure the aircraft were able to keep up with that pace.
The Tigers flew many missions to support the exiting convoys in addition to missions elsewhere in the country, Plourde added. The U.S. consolidated bases and moved south. During their time, they provided over watch for over 40,000 United States Forces. Other U.S. assets were in the air with them, such as tankers, reconnaissance aircraft and carrier-based Navy assets, but at times, they were the only aircraft on scene capable of providing strike capability.
While airborne covering the convoys, they looked out for improvised explosive device emplacers, IEDs themselves and anything that looked suspicious, Plourde continued. They searched for anything that might have been a threat to our forces on the ground.
"During those last few months, there were no U.S. fatalities in any of the convoys the Tigers covered," Plourde remarked. "We have great pride in having been able to contribute to them leaving safely."
The Tigers worked hard to ensure that no sorties were missed and the convoys received constant coverage, Conrad said.
"A lot of emphasis was placed on what we were doing due to the fact that ours were the only F-16s left to protect the guys on the ground," Conrad went on. "That made our mission much more critical to make sure it was done right."
"When the unit we were replacing left, and the unit that came in for part of the transition period also left, it clicked with us that we were really playing a role in history," Conrad remarked. "We were providing a big part of the coverage in Iraq and we would continue until the final convoy left. To take that all on was a huge task."
"The Tiger AMU is the best I've ever seen and we had full confidence in our aircraft because we knew the capability of the Airmen who were working on them," Plourde said. "The Tigers were able to cover all those taskings because of the exceptional work of the Tiger AMU.The Tiger pilots also deserve recognition for the disciplined manner in which they conducted flight operations and flawlessly executed the mission."
"There were established drawdown timelines that were able to be accelerated," Plourde explained. "I like to think that the skills in which we operated aided in that."
"It is fitting that the Tigers were able to be a part of this final mission," Plourde added. "When executing our primary mission of defense suppression, we pride ourselves on being the first in and last out of any tactical mission. When our nation calls us for the next contingency operation, we will be ready to do the same once again."