Red Flag - Timothy LaBranche

Red Flag

Brief Overview of Red Flag

Red Flag, the famous advanced aerial combat training exercise, is held at Nellis Air Force Base, NV. The exercise is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2015, starting with exercise 15-1. The exercises are extremely realistic war games, and they give the U.S. and allied forces the opportunity to improve upon their skills and tactics. These skills and tactics are then shared with the participants' home units and squadrons. The end goal is to have the best skill set possible for real aerial combat situations. Red flag exercises consist of two teams, the Blue Team (good guys) and the Red Team (aggressors). The aggressor pilots are specially trained pilots that are part of the 64th Aggressor Squadron using F-16 C models, and the 65th Aggressor Squadron, using F-15 C models. Both aggressor squadrons are based at Nellis Air Force Base. The Blue Team pilots are from various units in the U.S. military and guests from allied nations. The Blue Team players fly in their native aircraft from their home base units. There is an exercise each day and night during each Red Flag session. To get the best training possible for everyone involved, the use of enemy hardware and live munitions for the bombing exercises is used. There are occasions where inert bombs will be used for a particular exercise. For the fighter pilots during the dog fights, there are no actual bullets being fired. Participating aircraft will carry specialized telemetry pods, or other equipment. This equipment is networked to a computer that will determine who was hit during a dog fight. The system is called NACTS (Nellis Air Combat Training System). After each mission is over, pilots receive lengthy debrief sessions to learn from any mistakes and to gain better knowledge for future missions. During the media day press conference, pilots stated that a typical day for a participating pilot can be up to 12 hours - with only one to three of those hours actually spent flying. The vast majority of their days is spent briefing and debriefing to constantly learn. There will be four Red Flag exercises in 2015. Each exercise has different units from both the U.S. and its allies. I was fortunate to be able to attend media day at Red Flag 15-1 that was held on February 3, 2015. This year's participants included the following aircraft: F-16s, F-15s, F-22s, B-2s, F/A-18s, EA-18, KC-135s, C-130s and more! Foreign visitors to 15-1's first two week session included the Royal Australian Air Force, Royal Air Force (United Kingdom). The RAAF is supporting Red Flag with their C-130s and P-3s. The RAF (United Kingdom) brought their Eurofighter Typhoon and Sentinel surveillance aircraft, which is based on the Bombardier Global Express commercial jet.

 My Experience Photographing Media Day

This was my first experience shooting at Red Flag's media day. The day started off with a press conference at the Thunderbirds Hanger on base. There was a subject matter expert panel that consisted of pilots, air crews, and support staff. After the press conference, we were then transported to the area between the two parallel runways. The launches started at approximately 12:30 p.m. with the KC-135 air refueling tankers. Next the B-2 bombers went up, followed by the reconnaissance jets. We were then given a briefing on what we could and could not photograph. For this exercise, the F-22s and the B-2s were on the list of approved aircraft. The only caveat was no rear shooting of the B-2. We would have three hours to shoot, and we would depart the runways at 16:00. After the briefing, the Red and Blue teams started taking off. Takeoffs were ships of four in rapid succession. After each four takeoffs, there as a brief pause until the next four went up. The launches lasted about 90 minutes, at which point we were able to take a brief break before the recoveries started. 

Launches

The first landing was around 14:30. Just like the launches, the recoveries were quick. At 16:00, everything but the B-2s and the C-130s had landed. We were on the bus, when the first of two B-2s called out on a five mile final approach. All 50 photographers on the bus squeezed their cameras into the tiny window openings, just hoping to catch a B-2 on final approach in perfect lighting. I pointed my Canon 100-400mm lens out of the window when it appeared and just held the shutter down. I didn't even have space to look through the viewfinder. The result was my favorite shot of the day!

Recoveries

I would like to thank the Public Affairs Office staff at Nellis Air Force Base, and MSgt David Miller, for their hospitality. Media Day was exceptionally great, and it wouldn't have been possible without them and their staff.

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