By Fort Sill Tribune staffFebruary 8, 2018
FORT SILL, Okla. (Feb. 8, 2018) -- Last week at Falcon Range here, new fighter pilots flying AT-38 trainers out of Sheppard Air Force Base got their first look at a weapons range; on the ground three Fort Sill Soldiers were recertifying their Joint Fires Observers (JFO) qualifications; four Airmen from Fort Hood, Texas, were getting their captain Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) qualified while overhead two F-16 fighter jets from Fort Worth, working with them fired rockets during weapons delivery training. And that was just one day -- Jan. 30.
Falcon is the busiest primary training range in the Air Force and operated by the Air Force Reserve 301st Fighter Wing, Naval Air Station-Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth. It is also a tenant at Fort Sill, said Mark Kessens, Falcon Range operations officer.
"We had over 3,000 sorties in the last fiscal year," said Kessens, who served in the Air Force, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard. "This unit is vital to maintain combat readiness for air crews and ground personnel."
Falcon Range's 15,000 acres is used by all the military branches, as well as by some foreign militaries training here, Kessens said.
Sheppard Air Force Base pilots learning fighter fundamentals flying AT-38s are the primary users; some of its pilots are NATO officers.
"For many of them, it is their first time at a weapons range," he said. "They learn about the procedures and processes of going to a weapons range, so that way they can fly the aircraft safely at their next assignment, which might be an A-10, F-15, the F-16 or the Euro-Fighter."
The 301st FW also uses Falcon as its primary training range, Kessens said. The range's restricted airspace makes it ideal for employing laser-guided weapons.
"We have laser-scoring systems ... and the ground-space we meticulously keep free of reflectors, so the aircraft are able to employ the lasers safely."
The range's quick and accurate scoring includes the Joint Advanced Weapons Scoring System, Weapons Impact Scoring System, and the Improved Remote Strafe Scoring System.
Minnesota National Guard helicopters crews came to Falcon a few years ago because they were having trouble properly identifying targets, Kessens said.
"They came out here and used our scoring system, which gave them exact distance and direction where they needed to correct their systems."
Aircrews from Dyess Air Force Base, Texas; Barksdale Air Force Base, La.; Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., Tulsa and Oklahoma Air National Guard units all frequent Falcon Range.
The range also gets Soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., and Fort Campbell, Ky., Kessens said.
"They come here because of aircraft that can provide them with training," he said. "It's a long way to go to Kentucky if you're flying an F-16."
Last year, more than 600 ground personnel trained at the range, Kessens said. That was up significantly because of three JTAC sites established in Oklahoma City.
A JTAC is a service member, who is in a forward position and directs the action of combat aircraft in close air support operations. A JFO identifies targets, calls for fires and readjustments of fires.
JFOs from Fort Sill regularly use Falcon.
Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Hill, a fires support instructor, trains new lieutenants in the Field Artillery Basic Officer Leader Course to become JFOs. He was at Falcon Range keeping his JFO qualification current, a meticulous process which can take up to a month.
"I feel JFOs are a joint-force multiplier because we're working with the Air Force and the Marines," Hill said.
Marines, Singaporean and Canadian JTACs also have received training here, Kessens said.
There is a lot of maneuver (ground) space on the range, so field, and air defense artillery Soldiers will be at the range.
"We'll have aircraft overhead while we have air defense personnel bivouacked in setting up a tactical operations center," he said. This usually happens in the southern, and eastern parts of the range.
"They will fire live field artillery from over there, while we have aircraft operating here (near the range tower)," Kessens said. It is a joint fires operation just like it would happen in combat.
Defense contractors periodically use the range to test their new air weapons systems, as well as unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, Kessens said. Those contractors included Lockheed Martin Tactical Aircraft Systems.
Fort Sill's varied landscape with brush, grasslands, lakes, and mountains makes for a realistic training environment, said Kessens, who is an air-combat veteran. JTACs incorporate the Wichita Mountains as part of terrain training.
"We're able to realistically employ weapons in the same manner as if they had to go to combat," Kessens said. "Air crews and JTACs love coming out here because they say we have the most realistic target arrays."
The range has 6,000 acres of impact area, which is roughly three times the size of an average primary training for an Eastern Air National Guard unit, Kessens said. The range's network of gravel roads not only allow range operators access to target areas, but they also add realism to the training environment. When a pilot looks out the cockpit he or she will see a range that virtually replicates a real-world target of simulated buildings, bunkers, artillery embankments, remote-controlled moving vehicles, parked aircraft, roads and runways.
"We're trying to get target, and tactical realism," Kessens said. He said keeps the range relevant by rearranging the targets so air crews are challenged to find them.
It takes a staff of 10 to keep Falcon Range running.
One of the unique things about its staffing is that it has two explosive ordnance disposal technicians on site, Kessens said. "We're probably one of the cleanest ranges in the Air Force because we have EOD on staff."
Also on staff are a range control officer/quality assurance evaluator, project manager/range control officer, two equipment operators, equipment maintainer, administrator/environmental specialist, ground electronics tech, and contracting officer representative.
"They are all exceptional, I'm really blessed," Kessens said.