Article Display

Adaptability in action: 55th ‘Shooters’ support NORAD with mission support innovations

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Steven Cardo
  • 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

In 2023, tasked with supporting North American Aerospace Defense Command’s (NORAD) Operation Noble Eagle, the 20th Fighter Wing’s 55th Fighter and Fighter Generation Squadron “Shooters” overcame a formidable challenge: relocating from Nellis AFB, Nevada to Hill AFB, Utah with less than 24-hours’ notice to ensure uninterrupted support operations. The mission tasking highlighted the squadron's resilience and logistical capabilities, setting the stage for a mission marked by adaptability, dedication, and commitment to homeland security.

Early in the tasking the team was faced with Hurricane Hilary, which was set to impact weather and infrastructure across Southern California. In response to the approaching hurricane and the risk it posed to the F-16s during their time deployed to Nellis, aircraft and personnel were required to quickly relocate to Hill to ensure continued support. Despite the abrupt move, the team successfully overcame logistical challenges and maintained aircraft generation and readiness while efficiently reconfiguring aircraft for both training and mission purposes, bolstering homeland defense.

“This was a perfect example of what a group of high-performing individuals is capable of accomplishing, logistically and operationally, when the chips are down and we need to take action,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Taylor Hiester, then 55th FS project officer. “It was a huge muscle movement to go from Shaw to Nellis to support mission operations. Then, we were required to pick up our operation and move to Hill with less than [24-hours’] notice as we anticipated some severe weather. So, we had to move aircraft, personnel and equipment to Hill with almost no notice, meaning Airmen needed to find lodging and figure out transportation for parts and equipment. Within two hours of landing at Hill, we were able to establish an [operations center] complete with satellite communications to receive the rest of the fleet and continue to support the mission we were there for.”

Deploying equipment and personnel from one installation to another can pose logistical challenges, prompting the 20th FW to establish a dedicated mission support team (MST) responsible for facilitating the movement and ensuring the logistical readiness of deploying units during the tasking. The MST comprised personnel from various support units and provided F-16-specific emergency response, airfield management, logistics, command and control, and more to ensure mission success. The 55th’s tasking to support NORAD marked the 20th FW’s first employment of an MST for such a mission, where the team was able to showcase its ability to operate effectively and achieve mission success despite a short-notice relocation to Hill in response to weather.

“Our role was to successfully deploy and redeploy the team, while also encompassing other LRS (logistics readiness squadron) functions such as fuel and supply support...,” said 1st Lt. Vanessa Perez, 20th Mission Support Group executive officer, and MST lead for the forward deployment to Nellis. “From my perspective, it was crucial to the mission to have the kind of logistics support that my team and I could provide. We did everything from coordinating airlift, to driving to Arizona to pick up a mission capable part for a jet.”

The MST was tailored to fulfill the needs of the 55th and the different locations they were tasked to during their mission, working closely with operations and maintenance project officers to plan, prepare for and execute the deployment and redeployment of personnel and assets at different host installations.

Later in the tasking, when the 55th integrated with the Puerto Rico Air National Guard (PRANG) while operating out of Muñiz Air National Guard Base, Puerto Rico, the MST required a more robust presence to supplement the host installation’s personnel and support capabilities.

“The MST played a vital role in supporting both operations and maintenance in executing the mission during the tasking with the PRANG,” said Capt. Shanna Thomas, 20th Civil Engineer Squadron operations flight deputy and MST lead for the forward deployment to Puerto Rico. “We split our capabilities within the MST up into different shifts to ensure full coverage of mission sustainment, protection, and airfield readiness during [the mission]. PRANG put some of their personnel on active orders for the duration of the tasking to help augment our team, providing additional support so we didn’t have to deploy as many personnel from Shaw. We trained the augmented PRANG Airmen on F-16-specific support since they don’t have fighters at their base.”

Maintenance personnel supported both the pilot training and constant ready-state of the squadron by developing methods to swiftly reconfigure aircraft between operational and training status. This often required maintainers to operate during irregular hours to best support aircraft between mission and training sorties.

The fighter squadron had to be flexible enough to reconfigure their aircraft to alternate between supporting training as well as the tasking’s mission requirements, said Senior Master Sgt. Eric Hilliard, 55th FS sortie support flight chief.

The 55th FS, FGS and support personnel demonstrated dedication and adaptability while navigating the demanding requirements of pilot training alongside ongoing mission commitments. Their dedication to the mission in the face of uncertain schedules and challenging conditions highlighted the importance of their role in maintaining the readiness and operational effectiveness of the 20th FW. As they continued to uphold their standards of professionalism and proficiency, the Shooters supported homeland and international defense requirements while preparing technicians and pilots for the future threat environment. During the tasking, the wing also honed its ability to employ MSTs in support of operational requirements.

“Overall, the resiliency of our folks to work 12-hour shifts during the week and weekends, during hours of darkness and daylight was inspiring,” Hilliard said. “They kept a positive attitude the entire time and it was because of their efforts that we were able to ensure our 55th pilots stayed combat ready.”

The Continental U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command Region has relied on the 20th Fighter Wing for its exceptional airspace surveillance and control capabilities. As a part of a collaborative effort that includes the U.S. Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force, Air National Guard, U.S. Coast Guard, and Civil Air Patrol, the ‘Shooters’ applied adaptability and logistical innovation to fulfill the tasking.

The defense of Canada and the United States is NORAD’s top priority. Operation NOBLE EAGLE is the name given to air sovereignty and air defense missions in North America. For more than 66 years, NORAD aircraft have identified and intercepted potential air threats to North America in the execution of the command’s aerospace warning and aerospace control missions.