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Colorful Birds Spotted at Red Flag

By Hayman Tam

The Thunderbirds are based at Nellis and did not let Red Flag interrupt their practice sorties. (Hayman Tam)The skies around Las Vegas were busier than normal with the annual Red Flag exercises recently concluded here in the Nevada desert.  Red Flag is an advanced aerial combat training exercise hosted at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada since 1975, with aircrew from U.S. military units and allied nations from around the world taking part in the two-week long exercise.
These exercises, held several times each year, have provided training to more than 13,000 aircrews and supporting personnel.  Red Flags typically include a variety of U.S. and allied aircraft performing missions such as air superiority; interdiction; electronic warfare; airlift support; search and rescue; and command and control.

The Red Flag exercises are very realistic aerial war games conducted to train pilots for real combat situations. This includes the use of simulated “enemy” hardware and live ammunition for bombing exercises within the confines of the 15,000-square-miles of airspace located at the Nevada Test and Training Range, north of Las Vegas. A normal Red Flag exercise has Blue Forces (friendly) engaging Red Forces (hostile) in realistic combat situations.

A wide assortment of Blue Force participants was on hand this year, ranging from Royal Australian Air Force F-18s and Royal Air Force GR.9 Harriers to B-1B bombers, futuristic F-22 Raptors and U.S. Navy EA-6B Prowlers. Military units from over ten states were also represented in the mix, with ten different types of aircraft in use.

The 65th Aggressor Squadron has been using F-15C aircraft since 2005 to simulate Su-27 Flanker fighters. (Hayman Tam)Enemy units are comprised of the 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons of the 57th Wing’s 57th Adversary Tactics Group.  The 64th flies F-16 Fighting Falcons while the 65th employs the F-15 Eagle.  Sporting Soviet-style camouflage and utilizing opposition tactics, they are the next best thing for training realism.
The purpose of Red Flag is to expose pilots to realistic combat conditions against an opponent using “enemy” tactics.  Pilots benefit from maneuvering against dissimilar aircraft in dogfights, greatly increasing their chances of survival when they are called upon to do this for real. The U.S. Air Force enjoyed a 10-to-one kill ratio during the Korean War but saw that drop to only a two-to-one advantage during the latter part of the Vietnam War.  Studies concluded that a pilot’s first 10 combat missions were the most critical; if aircrew members survived those missions then their chances for success increased dramatically.

Red Flag operations involve large scale, multi-squadron engagements. This is in contrast to the Navy’s Top Gun program where the best pilots are brought in to learn from instructor pilots and then returned to their home squadrons to share their experience.

Lockheed Martin F-16C aircraft assigned to the 64th Aggressor Squadron, painted in Russian-style camouflage. (Hayman Tam)The International Society for Aviation Photography (ISAP) arranged this photo opportunity as one of the highlight activities of their annual symposium, held in Las Vegas this year.  Photographers had a ringside seat next to the taxiways and runways as aircraft stopped to arm their weapons and then took off, some singly, others in groups.

Since 2001, the ISAP has grown to more than 500 members representing 30 countries.  It serves as the premier organization for aviation photography, providing a valuable learning environment for members of all skill levels.  For more information, go to the ISAP website:

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