By Senior Airman Erin O'Shea, 48th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published January 29, 2015
ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England (AFNS) -- It's known as "Gold," it's the home of the Grim Reapers, and, for 2014, it's been named the top fighter squadron in the Air Force.
The 493rd Fighter Squadron demonstrated their ability to remain “Forward, Ready, Now,” and was recently awarded the highly competitive and prestigious Raytheon Trophy.
"I think there is a tendency for people to think this is just a fighter squadron award or that it reflects one year of work," said Lt. Col. Lendy Renegar, who commanded the squadron through much of the Raytheon award period, and three of its four deployments. "Not true. It takes more like six years to build a Raytheon Trophy-winning squadron. Culture is built, body moves are made, leadership plans get put into place, phase flow gets sorted, then someone has to show up and execute it all.
"Then you add nearly every career field in the Air Force to our deployment package," Renegar said. "They perform at a very high level for you, and you have a Raytheon winner. This trophy goes to all those Airmen from six different bases, not just the Reapers."
When Russia invaded Ukraine, threatening stability in Eastern Europe, the 493rd FS response was swift and professional. The secretary of Defense made the call, and the 493rd FS was in Lithuania in less than 20 hours, to supplement the Baltic Air Policing mission.
"Assurance isn't only about results," Renegar said. "It's also the speed at which you do it."
Ultimately, the 493rd FS produced 2,856 hours of alert, flew 480 alert lines, 221 armed over watch sorties and 22 active air scrambles to intercept 31 Russian air force aircraft when they threatened and sometimes even violated Baltic airspace.
The team was even bigger in Iceland, where the 493rd FS was joined by KC-135 Stratotankers, C-130 Hercules and Guardian Angels to protect the second-largest operational airspace in the world. The 493rd FS deployed 195 days straight in split locations, and Renegar said he can't emphasize enough, the total force it took to accomplish those missions.
"We had security forces standing guard in blizzards, watching over the base and aircraft," he explained. "Weather, aircrew flight equipment, intelligence and maintenance -- often one-deep in their jobs -- responding to scrambles night and day, good weather and bad. Barrier maintenance personnel shoveled snow by hand many times a day to keep the cables clear during launch and recovery.
"Force support personnel tracked our Airmen and handled emergent issues, while medical personnel kept Airmen ready to fly," Renegar added. "Logistics and civil engineer personnel made these huge movements happen, tracking all of our parts to generate all the airpower. Our agile contractors kept fuel flowing, oxygen deliveries happening and provided us a place to sleep and way to get there.
"Back-shop maintainers built workshops out of nothing, and, they were so good at their job, we didn't lose one air-tasking-order sortie to maintenance," he said. "Controllers and data-link managers partnered with the host nation control facilities to enhance situational awareness and build partnerships.
“The pilots, maintainers and fuel specialists lived in the alert facility 24/7, cooked for each other, challenged each other to corn hole games -- which ops usually won," Renegar joked, " and scrambled day and night, good weather and bad - assuring allies."
The "Gold" aircraft maintenance unit, part of the 748th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, received an "outstanding" on their Logistics Compliance Assessment Program inspection, the best aircraft maintenance LCAP score seen to date, according to the Inspector General. Additionally, the squadron maintained an 84 percent mission-capable rate in fiscal (year) 2014, the number one rate across the combat air forces. With eight of nine key maintenance indicators, they led U.S. Air Forces in Europe at large. The 493rd FS was also inspected while deployed -- twice by NATO and once by USAFE. They aced both NATO tactical evaluations and were found "Highly Effective" on the USAFE Unit Effectiveness Inspection.
Not only did the 493rd FS ace their deployments and inspections, but they also went above and beyond to achieve more than just operational success.
"The squadron 'adopted' an orphanage in Lithuania, with 250 Airmen visiting and caring for kids for four months," Renegar said. "At the end of their tour, they donated a washer and dryer to the facility. In Iceland, they hosted four terminally-ill children, making them 'pilots' for a day.”
When Renegar relinquished command of the 493rd FS to Lt. Col. John Stratton Aug. 13, 2014, the new squadron commander knew he would be continuing a legacy of exceptional performance.
"I already knew the Grim Reapers were the best fighter squadron in the Air Force," Stratton said. "The award validated those feelings, and I'm humbled to lead such an amazing squadron. The squadron was very busy in 2014, executing a myriad of real-world tasking's to support and protect our NATO allies and U.S. interests in this part of the world."
Immediately after the change of command, Stratton led the 493rd FS on a short-notice deployment to Bulgaria as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, flying 117 percent of their planned sorties and reassuring key NATO allies during tense Russian posturing.
"We have an amazing operations and maintenance team that performs at a very high level on a daily basis," Stratton said. "I'm constantly in awe of what the team accomplishes, and I have no doubt 2015 will be another superior year for the Grim Reapers."
This Raytheon award is the first for the 493rd FS since 2007, and their fourth overall. Gen. Frank Gorenc, the USAFE-Air Forces Africa commander, is tentatively scheduled to present the Raytheon Trophy to the 493rd FS in the spring at a ceremony in the U.K. While the squadron's F-15C Eagles were slated to leave Europe in 2014, they're presence has now been extended, at least through fiscal year 2015.
"This team's efforts in 2014, and this trophy, reaffirm the importance of the air-superiority mission in Europe and that Europe-based forces are essential," Renegar said. "We could not have responded this fast from the States. The Grim Reapers truly are Forward, Ready, Now."