ALPENA CRTC, Mich. --
ALPENA, Mich. – The rear door of a C-130H Hercules opens in mid-flight, exposing the lush landscape of northern Michigan just a few hundred feet below. Tethered inside the aircraft, Tech. Sgt. Trent Barron, a C-130H flight engineer assigned to the 169th Airlift Squadron, Illinois Air National Guard, is preparing for a piece of military cargo weighing more than 1,000 lbs. to slide from the back of the plane, and — after being caught by a quickly deployed parachute — descend gently to Earth.
“I’m going through my head mentally, going through the checklist to make sure we’ve accomplished all the items for the air drop, that we are ready for something big to exit the aircraft,” Barron says.
On this mission — part of Northern Strike 19, the Department of Defense’s largest annual joint, reserve component readiness exercise — Barron is being evaluated with a no-notice check ride to assess his proficiency. He’s confident, ready for the chance to do his job well on a training mission that will realistically simulate a contested environment, including surface-to-air threats to his aircraft.
“This is my fourth year at Northern Strike,” says Barron. “I was here in ‘12, ‘13, ‘14, and now this year. It’s an awesome mission we’ve been doing up here with all of these training sorties.”
At the controls of Barron’s aircraft is Capt. John Tillotson, C-130H pilot, 169th Airlift Squadron. “We don’t get to pop chaff and flares very often, so this is an opportunity to go into a restricted area where it’s legal and do that,” he says, referencing the strips of metal foil released from an aircraft to obstruct radar detection or confuse radar-tracking missiles. “We’ve had three of these missions in six days, so it’s been really good for us up here at this exercise.”
With training areas that include the largest restricted military airspace complex east of the Mississippi River, Northern Michigan is indeed an ideal venue for aircrew to run combat simulations like this one. As an exercise, Northern Strike 19 (July 22 - Aug. 2) capitalizes on these pristine training spaces, which also include 147,000 acres of maneuver space at Camp Grayling and full-spectrum mission support capabilities at Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center.
This year, more than 6,000 personnel representing 20 U.S. states and seven partner nations will join together at Northern Strike for the synchronization of fires in a joint, multinational environment.
“I love this job because it’s different all the time,” said Capt. Katie Maglia, co-pilot of the C-130H carrying Tillotson and Barron. “Northern Strike is fun because of all the things we’re able to do here that we don’t usually get to do. It’s challenging for us, but it never gets boring, it never gets old.”
While Tillotson and his crew took off from Alpena, near Michigan’s Lake Huron coastline, tonight they’ll grace the skies over most of Northern Michigan. After the first airdrop over a training area in Rogers City, their flight plan takes them to Michigan’s western shoreline, over the Sleeping Bear sand dunes and the picturesque waters of Torch Lake, then back to Alpena for two more airdrops. The aerial gunnery range in Grayling is where the simulated surface-to-air threats and chaff deployments take place.
In Rogers City and Grayling, the crew will coordinate with Joint Terminal Attack Controllers — specialists who serve as the nexus between air power and ground forces requiring support from above.
“The level of integration that you see here, getting controlled by JTACs who are actually on the ground, is not something we often get to practice,” said 1st Lt. Daniel Wallace, navigator, 169th Airlift Squadron. “It’s a crucial phase of flight in the air drop environment, but it’s also important to be able to practice those communication procedures with JTACs and range controllers that we don’t get to do at home.”
By the end of the four-hour mission, the crew will have completed all three airdrops successfully — plus at least six closed-door passes over Grayling for additional coordination with JTACs below.
“It’s great training,” says Barron, who passes his check flight with flying colors. “You get to work with everybody just like you do when we’re over in the desert.”