Two F-16s from the 457th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron fly alongside two MiG-21s from the Romanian Air Force's 711st Fighter Squadron over Transylvania on June 25, 2019. Staff photo by Brian Everstine
CAMPIA TURZII, Romania—The US Air Force’s mission to assure European allies is coming together in the skies over Transylvania, with F-16s from Texas flying alongside Soviet-era MiG-21s.
About 300 airmen and 12 aircraft from the 457th Fighter Squadron at NAS JRB Fort Worth, Texas, deployed to the small airfield here in late May as part of a theater security package supporting Operation Atlantic Resolve, a first for most of the US airmen participating, though the Romanians who welcomed them have become well-versed in USAF operations. As part of the TSP, US pilots are flying side-by-side with the MiGs in local air space, training with Italian Air Force Eurofighter Typhoons deployed to another base in the country, or just doing in-house training over the Romanian countryside.
An F-16 from the 457th Fighter Squadron prepares for takeoff from Romanian Air Base 71 on June 26, 2019. The F-16s are deployed from NAS JRB Fort Worth, Texas. Photo by Brian Everstine/staff
“It’s just cool to look out on the wing and either see a Typhoon piloted by an Italian or a MiG piloted by a Romanian,” said Capt. Andrew See, an F-16 pilot with the 457th FS. “We kind of all look the same at a certain point, we’re just out there doing our job.”
With the MiGs, the F-16s have focused on dissimilar air combat maneuvering. Sometimes two F-16s go hunting for a MiG, trying to get the quickest simulated kill, said Lt. Col. Paul Batish, commander of the 457th. Other times, the F-16 has been the bad guy for MiGs to hunt.
“The guys have loved that. The Romanians have loved doing dissimilar training with us,” Batish said. “It’s been great training to see a Soviet-era aircraft, what it’s like to merge with him, to visually ID that aircraft, and then what it’s like to be in a turning fight with those guys.”
Two MiG-21s from the Romanian Air Force’s 711th Fighter Squadron fly in formation over Transylvania on June 25, 2019. Photo: Brian Everstine/staff
Romanian Air Force Col. Marius Oadu, commander of the 71st Air Force Base, has flown with USAF aircraft at the base for about 10 years now. Oadu, also a graduate of USAF’s Air War College, said this training is a “great opportunity” to practice their own tactics, but also to get to know an ally that has grown very important to Romania.
“It’s not only beating the F-15s or the F-16s, it’s about training together and trying to be ready to fly together against our enemy, our adversary, whoever this might be,” he said. “If it will be to go to war with the American allies, with American pilots, I’m sure that there will be no problems in any phase of the war—organizing, planning, executing.”
Two F-16s from the 457th Fighter Squadron fly in formation over Transylvania on June 25, 2019. Photo: Brian Everstine/staff
Since the deployment began, the F-16s have also flown in exercises such as Swift Response, where they conducted close air support missions with Romanian joint tactical controllers who were calling in live-fire gun runs.
The TSP has given the US airmen an up-close view of a NATO ally’s tactics, “so it allows our guys to understand what sort of potential contingencies you might have to deal with,” Batish said. Instead of only flying alongside US pilots, using established US tactics from the same manual, “now we’re having to use more broad NATO tactics and NATO standards. It kind of gives them info for their bag of tricks in the future.”
An F-16 from the 457th Fighter Squadron taxis before taking off from Romanian Air Base 71 on June 26, 2019. The squadron is deployed to Romania for a theater security package. Photo: Brian Everstine/staff
The deployed airmen are mostly Reserve, with a mix of Active Duty from the Total Force Integration unit at Fort Worth. For some, the TSP is their first deployment. Others have been in the unit for decades. The maintainers planned long in advance for the deployment, bringing everything they need with them to maintain a high mission capable rate, said Capt. Matthew Poe, the maintenance officer in charge with the squadron.
Campia Turzii is a “bare base,” with some hangar space the airmen can use but not much more for maintenance infrastructure that can be used for F-16s. Despite a couple “curveballs,” the maintainers have been able to maintain a high success rate for the almost daily flight operations, Poe said.
“This is what we do, and our guys are excited to be here,” Poe said. “They’re excited to showcase their abilities and make sure that we’re getting all the mission sets accomplished, and we’ve been executing that quite well. We’ve maintained a 99 percent success rate on all the missions that have been planned.”
A crew chief from the 457th Fighter Squadron directs an F-16 pilot before taxiing to takeoff at Romanian Air Base 71 on June 26, 2019. Photo: Brian Everstine/staff
Since the aircraft are so different, there is not much direct interaction between Romanian and US maintainers. However, there have been times when they help each other out. For example, early in the deployment a Romanian MiG had a stripped bolt that their maintainers had trouble with, so they reached out to the Americans, who walked them through their processes for fixing the issue, Poe said. Additionally, civil engineers deployed with the squadron have helped the Romanians fix parts of their flight line with quick-mix concrete, Batish said.
On the day-to-day flying level, the long-established TSP presence in Romania has meant that regular operations are “very smooth, not that much different than at home integrating with another service,” said Lt. Col. Dave Snodgrass, the director of operations for the 457th EFS. But unlike that home training, it’s a Soviet-built aircraft instead of another USAF airframe.
“It’s really cool to look over and see a MiG-21 there right next to you, flying in formation,” Snodgrass said.