Cactus Starfighter brings fight to range

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman C.J. Hatch
  • 56th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Troops sat pinned down under attack from a line of enemy vehicles. Insurgents shot down the F-16 Fighting Falcon coming to help and the pilot lay stranded near the fighting. On a small hilltop behind a pile of rocks, the joint terminal attack controller looks over the scene and coordinates close-air support to help the troops while coordinating with the rescue helicopters coming for the pilot.

This is just one of the scenarios played out during the Cactus Starfighter 21-1 CAS exercise held at Luke Air Force Base and the Barry M. Goldwater Range south of Gila Bend, Ariz., April 23 through May 4.

"Being out in the field and actually conducting live training with the aircraft helps with our proficiency," said Staff Sgt. Jacob Torgerson, a 116th Air Support Operations Squadron JTAC from Camp Murray, Wash. "Our role is first to prevent fratricide and second to keep friendly elements as safe as possible."

Not only were the JTACs there to coordinate close air support and rescues, they had another goal with the exercise.

"As a JTAC, we have to qualify on controlling every six months to stay current," Torgerson said. "I was here today to get the last parts of my qualification done."

The exercise also helped the pilot who simulated being shot down.

"I played the downed pilot waiting to be rescued," said Capt. Christopher Campbell, a 310th Fighter Squadron student pilot. "This exercise not only helps the student pilots who flew as close air support, but it helped me playing a downed pilot as well. We, as students, go through survival, evasion, resistance and escape training before or after the pilot training course and this gave me the opportunity to practice the training I learned there for getting rescued."

Some of the benefits of having this type of exercise at Luke AFB and the Goldwater Range are the range's size and terrain similar to Afghanistan, according to the JTACs.

"There are a limited number of ranges in the country we can use, and the Goldwater Ranger has a large amount of available land as well as local aircraft that are flexible and willing to train with us," Torgerson said. "The environment is also similar to what you would find while deployed -- it's hot, dry and the terrain is like that of deployed locations. The bases around the range also have many of the same air assets you would have in theater."

With the number of people involved, the exercise was a benefit to the total and joint force. JTACs from Camp Murray worked along with active duty units and supported each other throughout the exercise.

"We often get attached to active duty units like this while deployed," said Torgerson, who is a noncommissioned officer in the Air National Guard. "An exercise like this gives us a perspective on how those units function. We also got the opportunity to do face-to-face debriefs with pilots as well as the mission planning and that's something we don't get to do often. It helps us better work with each other and understand where the guard or active duty elements are coming from."