NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev.—The Colombian Air Force made history while participating in the U.S. Air Force’s premier air-to-air combat training exercise, Red Flag 18-3, July 16 to August 3.
The U.S. and Colombian Air Forces have been working together for the previous year and a half to advance their role in the Red Flag scenarios since Colombia began participating in the exercise in 2012.
“In the last six years they’ve [the Colombian Air Force] made significant modifications to their aircraft hardware and software that has allowed them to have greater capabilities and to participate with greater interoperability,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Carlos Nivia, U.S. Embassy in Colombia director of operations for U.S. Air Force.
The Colombian Air Force kicked off their participation in the exercise with their 767 Multi-Mission Tanker Transport Jupiter aircraft refueling a U.S. Navy EA-18 Growler from the VAQ-132 Scorpions at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington.
According to the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, this marks the first time in history a Colombian aircraft has refueled a U.S. aircraft. The 767 MMTT Jupiter refueled the Growlers and Colombian Kfirs throughout their eight day and night mission flight sorties throughout the exercise.
When the Colombian Air Force participated in 2012 they only refueled their own Kfir fighter jets. Since then, they worked with both Canada and Brazil to gain experience refueling foreign aircraft and obtained authorization to refuel U.S. aircraft, explained Colombian Air Force Lt. Col. Juan Carlos Ariza, 767 MMTT Jupiter pilot. Artza continued to say that refueling a U.S. aircraft is a huge step in Colombia’s journey to become more compatible with partner nation assets.
The Colombian Kfir fighter jets flew 36 day and night sorties in the exercise, and a Colombian Kfir pilot led a group of multiple aircraft in a simulated strike package.
Colombian Air Force Maj. Freddy Figueroa, 111th Fighter Squadron commander, trained in Red Flag 2012 as the youngest Kfir fighter jet pilot. He returned this year as a seasoned Kfir pilot and the first Colombian package strike commander for a Red Flag exercise.
A package strike commander is responsible for all aircraft as they strike against targets in enemy territory. They plan the entire mission and during execution are in charge of making tactical flight decisions for the package.
“For a Colombian pilot it’s an honor to be the leader of the tactical portion of U.S. assets,” Figueroa said. “It was a great opportunity.”
U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert G. Novotny, 57th Wing commander, and Maj. Gen. Peter E. Gersten, U.S. Air Force Warfare Center commander, expressed throughout the exercise how the training they received at Red Flag exercises in their careers had aided them in real air-to-air combat war missions and possibly even saved their lives.
“I flew in [Operation] Iraqi Freedom on night one of the war back in 2003, and it was really challenging. There were airplanes everywhere, all of the coalition partners, it was night, it was bad weather and the enemy was fighting back,” said Novotny. “I firmly felt that I had the skills available to me because of the two or three Red Flags that I had participated in as a young pilot.”
The Colombian Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Carlos Eduardo Bueno Vargas, also experienced Red Flag 2012 as the first Colombian unit commander to participate in the exercise. Gen. Bueno traveled to Nellis AFB again this year to observe the 130 Colombian Airmen, six Colombian Kfir fighter jets and one Colombian Air Force 767 MMTT Jupiter participating in Red Flag 18-3.
During his visit, he also meet with Red Flag leadership, visited the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team and presented five U.S. Airmen with the Colombian Air Force Faith in the Cause Medal for their dedication to the Colombian Air Force mission.
“We have achieved our goals thanks to determination and will, and we have also had the collaboration and support of some exceptional men who we want to recognize” Bueno said. “Giving them recognition that is a sign of our fraternal feelings and gratitude towards those who have hosted us and have facilitated our participation in Red Flag.”