The tarmac rumbled as the dark grey, twin-engine fighter jet soared upward only meters above.
Within seconds the F-15E Striker Eagle disappeared into Savannah’s cloudless blue sky.
Air Force Lt. Col. Jeff O’Donnell grinned as a second F-15E roared off the runway Thursday morning at the Georgia Air National Guard’s Combat Readiness Training Center.
“Loud enough for you?” asked O’Donnell, the commander of the 333rd Fighter Squadron, an F-15E pilot training unit based at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C.
More than 20 pilots from O’Donnell’s unit and about 200 additional airmen from the 4th Fighter Wing deployed to the training center this week to conduct a final training mission.
“For these students, over the last eight months they’ve been learning to fly the F-15E,” O’Donnell said. “This is the end of the program.
“When we’re finished here we’ll send them back to Seymour Johnson and they will graduate from this course.”
Before the deployment to Savannah, the pilots each had about 70 hours of training in the F-15E. Within six months they could be deploying to fly it in Afghanistan.
That’s why having the final test in a deployment-like situation is especially useful, said 1st Lt. Adam Thompson, a student-pilot in the unit.
“The main purpose of this is to get a taste for a deployment — it’s like a small-scale deployment, with the (aircraft) maintainers and everyone out here,” Thompson said. “We can get a feel for what that’s like before we actually go downrange.”
The 10 planes — each equipped with a pilot and a weapons system officer — headed Thursday morning toward the Pinecastle Bombing Range in the Ocala National Forest where the flight crews would drop their first laser-guided bombs.
“It’s a big deal,” Thompson said. “We’ve done a lot of simulated training for it, but this is the real thing — it’s a big day for us.”
Although the missiles dropped Thursday were not live, they gave the pilots and weapons systems officers the feel for striking their targets, O’Donnell said.
The formation also had to deal with a number of contingencies, including simulated combat and systems failures over the course of the two-hour flight, the lieutenant colonel said.
For the pilots, the trip to Savannah is especially exciting, Thompson said, because it’s the first time they are using all of the skills they’ve been learning in one flight.
“It’s a great culmination of everything we’ve learned so far,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for us, a new challenge in a new location. We can learn a lot.”
Asked what it’s like flying an F-15E, Thompson hesitated before answering.
“It’s fast,” he said. “You don’t really have time to think about it.
“Before doing it I thought, ‘Oh that looks like so much fun,’ but when you’re up there you’re so busy the whole time that you don’t really think about it while you’re doing it. On the ground, though, you can sit there and say, ‘Yeah, that’s cool. That’s really fun.’”
Fighter jet training will increase air traffic
People throughout the Coastal Empire can expect to hear increased flight traffic the next two weeks.
The 333rd Fighter Squadron, an F-15E training squadron based at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., is currently training in the area.
Most of their flying will be performed along the southeast Georgia and northeast Florida coast and out over the Atlantic Ocean.
The unit’s commander, Lt. Col. Jeff O’Donnell, said the F-15Es are louder than most of the military aircraft commonly present in the area.
“They’re a little louder than the (F/A-18) jets the Marines fly (out of Marine Cops Air Station Beaufort) around here,” O’Donnell said. “And that is mostly because we’re flying 10 planes all together instead of two or three.”