More than a pilot: providing air support from the ground

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Daniel Phelps
  • 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Like many aviators, Capt. Sarah Eccles, an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot from San Antonio, caught the flying bug at a young age. On her 15th birthday, her father surprised her by taking her to a Wright Flyers Aviation flight school.

As she sat in the cockpit with the instructor, operating the controls and soaring through the air, the captain said she realized she'd found her passion.

Captain Eccles began taking flying lessons soon after that test run. At the age of 17, on March 20, 1999, she experienced her first solo flight.

"It was a little intimidating going airborne, being in charge of this machine," she recalled. "It's a huge responsibility, but such a confidence builder. I thought if I could do this, what's next?"

After graduating from high school, she attended the Air Force Academy and then two years of pilot training, where she fulfilled her dream and earned her wings as an F-16 pilot. After flying the F-16 for four years, she reached a time all Air Force pilots must come to: their Air Education and Training Command, lead-in fighter training, forward air controller and air liaison officer tour, also known as an "ALFA" tour.

An ALFA tour is a period in an Air Force pilot's career when he or she takes a break from flying to serve in other roles that benefit from his or her professional experience. For example, during the tour, fighter pilots may become instructor pilots, operate remotely piloted aircraft or serve as air liaison officers, providing planning, coordination and execution expertise to multiservice combat operations.

"The tour is designed to bring experienced flyers away from their main weapons system to other jobs to use their experience and to gain some experience," Captain Eccles said. "The point is for pilots to broaden their careers."

ALFA tours generally are assigned to mid- to senior- level captains, but occasionally pilots will take their tours right after pilot training.

Captain Eccles chose to be an ALO for the 682nd Air Support Operations Squadron here because her husband, Capt. John Eccles, a 15th Airlift Squadron C-17 Globemaster III pilot, is stationed a few hours away at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., which allows them to be stationed relatively close together.

Her responsibility as an ALO is to bring her experience to the 682nd ASOS to be the link between the Air Force and the Army in combat. Whatever the mission, she is trained help provide close air support, or CAS, for ground forces.

She was pleasantly surprised as she stepped away from flying an F-16 and into the role of ALO, she said.

"Being an ALO has been the most personally satisfying job I've had in my career," she said. "Working with the enlisted corps is amazing. As a pilot, you generally don't get to interact with them at this level."

The job also has given her the opportunity to rest, recharge and redirect her energy, she added.

Through her time as an ALO, she had the unique opportunity to see how the Air Force and the Army relate and work with each other.

Recently, Captain Eccles returned from a deployment in southwest Asia as an ALO. Her job was to lead a crew responsible for directing fixed-wing CAS assets. At times, missions and priorities would change because ground troops were attacked or ambushed.

The ALO would take "911 calls" and have a map out to organize and plan the close air support, she said. Captain Eccles was in charge of directing the fighters to the troops on the ground who needed help. She said her CAS experience as an F-16 pilot came in very handy during her deployment.

On an average day, her air support operation center would receive more than 20 calls from troops in contact needing CAS, and during one day, her team received and handled more than 100 calls from troops in contact.

Because of that day and several other successful coordinated missions, her ASOC crew received the 2010 Air Combat Command Team of the Year award.

"Our proudest moment there was being able to help out those who were in the thick of it," she said.

The experience gave her a better understanding of the process that goes into providing CAS, she said. It's knowledge that she will able to take back to her fighter squadron.

Captain Eccles said her time as an ALO has taught her many lessons in leadership, some she learned the hard way.

The captain said she will miss being an ALO when her tour is over, but she is excited to be back in the air; she wishes it were possible to do both.

"Of course I've missed flying," she said. "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't hard to watch the same planes I used to command fly overhead and hear the jets rattle the windows. I know I've done it before, and I'll do it again. My experience allows me to share my love of flying with the 682nd."

But for the time being, she continues to learn in this field, prepare for her next deployment and love every minute of her job.