Turn and Burn: Low-Fly Zone
by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew
September 7, 2018
The U.S. Air Force 48th Fighter Wing’s 492nd and 494th Fighter Squadrons stationed at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England ... are combat-ready, world-wide deployable F-15E Strike Eagle units capable of executing strategic attack, interdiction, close air support and counter-air missions in support of war plans and contingency operations for U.S. European Command (USECOM), U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and NATO.
Low flying training operations help both aircrew and support personnel on the ground meet essential and time-sensitive currency requirements and are necessary to maintain a ready, capable force.
An F-15E Strike Eagle assigned to the 492nd Fighter Squadron flies over Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England during low flying training operations on May 10, 2018. The 492nd trains regularly to ensure RAF Lakenheath brings unique air combat capabilities to the fight. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew)
“The reason we fly low in the F-15E is to practice a combat skill that allows us to get in to a target area using ground features like hills, mountains, and the curve of the earth to shield us from enemy radar, visual observers, and missiles,” said Major Thomas Morrill, 492nd Fighter Squadron pilot. “It is a perishable skill, so we have to practice to stay good at it.”
Coordination of U.S. fighters conducting low-fly operations in and around the United Kingdom requires more than a simple check with the local air-traffic controller. It’s a culmination of effort between Airmen assigned to United States Air Forces Europe-United Kingdom Headquarters and the Ministry of Defence.
“The United Kingdom has a structured Low Flying System administered by a dedicated military unit through which bookings are made by all military aircraft intending to fly below 2000ft,” said Graham Ordish, USAE-UK British airspace liaison officer. “The system covers the entire country other than listed avoidance areas ranging from centres of population, restricted airspace around civil airfields and military danger areas to riding schools for the disabled and bird sanctuaries. In addition to the booking requirement, there is a web based tool which allows crews using the Low Flying System to know the routes and timings of other low flying military aircraft, further increasing flight safety.”
Safety remains a top priority for 48th Fighter Wing Airmen, who are trained to maintain a vigilant state of situational awareness at all times. U.S. F-15s flying low-level training missions in the U.K. do so at an altitude no lower than 500 feet above the ground (AGL) in areas where military aircraft can safely conduct this type of flying.
Even with the Strike Eagle’s two-man crew, this is a challenging task. Both the pilot and weapons systems officer (WSO) manage the airplane's systems, run navigation sensors and make decisions in a carefully planned sequence, while communicating efficiently with wingmen, air traffic control and between themselves.
“Although I am exercising all these skills concurrently, first and foremost, I am flying along the contours of the Earth without hitting it, while simultaneously watching out for other airplanes, helicopters, birds, power lines, and towers,” said Morrill. “In combat sometimes you have to re-attack a target because you had to focus your attention on a safety concern, and that's OK.”
The same attention to detail applies in a deployed environment where the difference could mean life and death. Liberty Wing pilots consistently study regional geography to gain an understanding of the airspace and other restrictions.
The principle of collective defense is at the very heart of NATO’s founding treaty. It remains a unique and enduring principle that binds its members together, committing them to protect each other and setting a spirit of solidarity within the Alliance. The importance of preserving combat skills through effective training ensure Liberty Wing Airmen are fully prepared for potential contingencies.