Aviators from multiple U.S. military branches are in Duluth to take part in a two-week flight exercise intended to simulate air and ground combat operations.
"Northern Lightning" is a twice-annual training simulation for nearly 1,000 participants and about 50 aircraft, split between the Minnesota Air National Guard's 148th Fighter Wing in Duluth and the Volk Field Combat Readiness Training Center north of Madison, Wis.
While most of the action is at Volk Field, the 148th Fighter Wing is hosting EA-18 Growler planes and personnel from a naval air station on Whidbey Island, Wash.; F-16 fighter jets from the 114th Fighter Wing in Sioux Falls, S.D.; as well as the 148th's own F-16s.
On Tuesday afternoon, a group of EA-18s and F-16s lined up and took off from the Air National Guard base in Duluth, heading out to train over parts of Lake Superior.
The training is all about combat readiness and bringing different capabilities together, said Lt. Col. Paul Thornton, commander for the Duluth-based 179th Fighter Squadron. Pilots at the 148th train regularly, but the combined operation allows a more realistic scenario.
Depending on the exercise, participants can play both sides in a simulated conflict, Thornton said. A unit from the Idaho Air National Guard also has been deployed to Wisconsin to help simulate surface-to-air threats, he said.
Thornton said he enjoys the challenge of flying the F-16 during these exercises.
"You never get bored, never get comfortable because things and tactics are always changing," he said. "The scenarios are always changing. The threat is always changing, and you never really know what you're going to have to be ready for."
Navy Lt. Cmdrs. Cristine Plecki and Dan Sherman, both based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington, fly EA-18 Growlers as members of Electronic Attack Squadron 209. Sherman is a naval pilot while Plecki is a naval flight officer who specializes in weapons and sensor systems.
The 148th's F-16s and the Navy's EA-18 Growlers have similar missions, and it makes sense to train together, Plecki said.
"So, we were able to come up here and integrate with those guys and gals, and be able to figure out some of our tactics together so that if anything happens (and) we have to do this in the real world together, we're better equipped to do that," she said.
Sherman said the exercises help the branches communicate better and share common language and planning, which is crucial in the event of an attack or war.
"We all kind of speak a different language, and each time we integrate and exercise like this ... we're able to sit down at a table and come up with, like, 'When I say XYZ, It means ABC for you,'" he said. "And we're able to just hash those out and come up with new tactics and procedures to better deploy our aircraft and work on this mission."
Tuesday's exercises took the planes along the southern shore of Lake Superior in Wisconsin and Michigan, said Col. Troy Havener of the 148th Fighter Wing. The participants will train in area about 300 miles west to east and 100 miles north to south.
Havener said a major benefit to flying from Duluth is that air traffic in the region is relatively light, so fewer commercial and private aircraft are affected.
The military is able to coordinate with local air traffic control towers and the Federal Aviation Administration to simply block off parts of the day when civilian air traffic can be diverted from the training area, he said.
The 148th Fighter Wing currently is making a bid to receive the F-35 - the U.S. military's latest fighter jet - to help ensure the base's continued viability. The St. Louis County Board on Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution in support of the matter, and Duluth City Councilor Arik Forsman on Monday signaled his intent to ask the council for its backing.
When a base is making its bid for major upgrades, a show of community support is necessary to help influence decision-makers. Hosting training exercises such as "Northern Lightning" help in that effort, Thornton said.
"We're trying to really show showcase this area and the community support that we have here," he said. "We hope to showcase the airspace that we have and the facilities we have so that we continue to expand this effort in the future and continue to get this training here at home."