10/12/08 — 335th Fighter Squadron tries live missiles

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335th Fighter Squadron tries live missiles

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on October 12, 2008 2:00 AM

News-Argus Video Report

Lewis Collins has been to war.

He has provided close-air-support for Allied troops on the ground in Afghanistan from the cockpit of an F-15E Strike Eagle.

But until his most recent deployment -- one that saw 12 aircraft and 178 personnel from the 4th Fighter Wing's 335th Fighter Squadron converge on Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. -- there was still a particular button he had never pressed.

So as he watched a live missile streak off his Strike Eagle toward an airborne target for the first time, Collins knew the image would not soon leave him.

"It was everything I always thought it would be," he said.

For the past several weeks, 335th aircrews traded in typical training sorties over Wayne County for an opportunity to battle sub-scale drones off the Gulf Coast, as participants in Combat Archer, a program designed to give pilots and weapons system officers confidence in their air-to-air skills.

The program also gives Air Force weapons system managers a forum to verify system performance, capabilities and limitations, as the explosives in the missile warheads are removed and replaced with telemetry packages that track the weapons' flight path, providing critical data to program managers.

Collins likened his first fire to a large-scale firework launch.

"It was like a six-foot bottle rocket screaming off the jet," he said. "It was unbelievable."

Capt. Jeremy Duffey used the word "unbelievable," too.

He has fired his guns at targets on the ground in Afghanistan, but never in an air-to-air situation.

"It was kind of different," he said.

The end result wasn't.

In fact, evidence of his precision could be found in the squadron's bar -- the target that was being dragged by a drone into which he pumped 350 rounds.

"It has quite a bit of holes in it," Duffey said with a grin. "Quite a bit."

Collins said he hopes never to have to use the training he received at Combat Archer.

Still, the experience, he said, has shown him firsthand that if called upon, the crews -- and their Strike Eagles -- have what it takes to claim victory.

"We are 100 percent prepared," he said.

But he knows that air-to-air combat has not been necessary in the War on Terror.

So it was another "first" that happened during the deployment that seemed even more relevant.

Members of the squadron flew 40 integration sorties with F-22A Raptors, the Air Force's newest fighter.

"It's an impressive aircraft," Collins said. "Good thing it's on our side."

Both men said that in the future, it is likely Raptors will be there alongside their Strike Eagles.