Gary Parsons reports from RAF Lakenheath on Exercise 'Excalibur' 2005
Exercise 'Excalibur', a joint RAF/USAF Training Engagement Initiative, took place at the Wainfleet and Holbeach Air Weapons Ranges over 17 and 18 August. The exercise, a bombing and strafing competition, provides an opportunity for aircrew from the two nations to test their skills and pit their wits against each other.
Nine squadrons participated from the USAFE and RAF, each unit being allowed four aircraft, but just one sortie per aircraft. As well as the 492nd and 494th Fighter Squadrons of the 'home team', the 48th Fighter Wing, other European-based USAF assets temporarily located to Lakenheath included the 22nd, 23rd and 81st Fighter Squadrons from the 52nd Fighter Wing from Spangdahlem in Germany and the 555th Fighter Squadron of the 31st Fighter Wing, based at Aviano in Italy. RAF units were 6 and 41 Squadrons from Coltishall and 9 Squadron from Marham, all operating from their home bases.
During the exercise aircraft operate in teams of four, but there are several competition categories including individual, squadron and wing for a range of bombing profiles and gunnery. This is the second time in recent years that Excalibur has been held, having been reborn from a series of exercises held in the late eighties and early nineties when the USAF presence in Europe was much greater - once the draw-down of the post-Cold War period bit, the exercise disappeared until last year's resurrection in August. 'Excalibur' is designed to enhance 'Esprit de Corps' between NATO tactical flying units.
Lt Col Charlie Midthun, Operation Group Deputy Commander for the 48th FW, was the Exercise Coordinator. "Excalibur is an excellent opportunity to work with our allies through friendly competition", he said.
"It's a real team event - the ground crew also play a big part. Each squadron needs four planes over the target area to stand a chance", he added. In the pilot's single sortie he is allocated six practice bombs and 100 rounds of Target Practice Ammunition - not much when the cannon can spit it out at 3,900 rounds per minute, as on the A-10A!
Flight Sergeant Dave Thornton, Senior Range Safety Officer at RAF Holbeach, explained each aircraft's sortie: "The aircraft take off from their home bases and will have a half-hour slot booked at RAF Wainfleet where they will complete several passes of high-dive onto the Wainfleet bombing targets. On completion of the Wainfleet part of the exercise they then transit directly to RAF Holbeach, roughly fifteen miles south, where they complete the bombing exercise at low level.
"When their bombing is complete they then move on to strafe. On completion of the two range details all scores are faxed to the exercise organisers at Lakenheath. The scores are collated in accordance with the contest rules to enable the final league table to be produced at the end of the competition." There are complex formulas and factors to apply to equalise the relevant different aircraft types taking part - these are done at Lakenheath on receipt of the draft scores from Holbeach.
The two F-15E
squadrons of the 48th FW participated in a 'turkey shoot' on 4 August
in readiness for 'Excalibur', the 494th FS coming out on top with 1886
points to the 492nd's 1816. The favourites for the event were the A-10s
of the 81st FS, as the types of missions are bread-and-butter to the Warthog's
capabilities. In all 216 practice bombs were dropped and 3,600 rounds
of Target Practice ammo expended during the two-days, held in glorious
weather. Friday 19 August saw a Large Force Exercise involving the F-15E
and F-16C units pitching against Tornado F3s in the North Sea, the A-10s
returning to Spangdahlem.
Playing for the 81st FS was Captain Steve 'Shaft' Sztan, a newcomer to the squadron and Excalibur. "We had about a week's practice", he said, "nothing out of the ordinary. We usually hit the ranges in Europe once or twice a week, so we're always ready for this sort of thing." Steve dropped his six 25 lb practice bombs and strafed the Holbeach target during Thursday afternoon, but didn't know his score. "We'll get to know that at the presentations this evening", he said. Were there any prizes? "I don't know about that, but if you win it's something to shout about at the bar!"
Next year's Excalibur promises to be bigger and better, with invites going out to other NATO allies. "Our aim is to make it a European 'Red Flag', with other NATO allies participating in the future", said Lt Col Midthun.