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Cope North Exercise Showcases Top Military Warplanes

Aggressor F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons fly in formation. Both warplane types play key roles in the Cope North exercise taking place in the Pacific through Feb. 26. (Air Force/Kevin Gruenwald)
Aggressor F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons fly in formation. Both warplane types play key roles in the Cope North exercise taking place in the Pacific through Feb. 26. (Air Force/Kevin Gruenwald)

ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam -- When this base opened its gates to the public Feb. 20 for a chance to see dozens of aircraft and support vehicles displayed near the airfield, cars lined up for several miles waiting to get inside.

It's rare that top military aircraft from America, Australia and Japan would be gathered in one spot; rarer still that the public would get an up-close look. But Cope North, a Pacific Air Forces-sponsored two-week exercise running through Feb. 26, provided the opportunity for this open house.

Many of those visitors made a beeline to the fighter jets. There were US Air Force F-15s from Kadena Air Base and F-16s from Misawa Air Base, both in Japan. From the US mainland were F-16C "Aggressors" and more F-16s. The Japan Air Self-Defense Force brought F-2s and F-15MJ fighters, and from Down Under, the Royal Australian Air Force brought six F/A-18F fighters.

Also on display were a host of other aircraft and ground vehicles at Cope North that keep those attack jets ready for battle. Among those were two KC-135 Stratotankers with the 909th Aerial Refueling Squadron from Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.

On Friday, the crew of one Stratotanker took reporters up to show how it's done.

The inside of a KC-135 is a bare bones affair with a few jump seats along the wall, dedicating most of the long cargo hold to a pipe leading from the fuel in the aircraft's belly to a boom jutting out the back of the plane.

Airman 1st Class Payten Olson, a boom operator, lay on his stomach peering out a plexiglass window. He controlled the insertion of the boom into the waiting F-15s and F-16s.

The pilots are directed into place with a series of lights on the plane's belly that tell them to move right or left, up or down. Refueling each jet is done within a couple minutes, with each receiving 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of fuel.

Capt. Dane M. Arnholt, who flew the mission, said that fighter jets are quite limited by the amount of fuel they can carry from takeoff.

"They can only do this for less than an hour without us," Arnholt said. "So they can do three, four times the training without having to land and refuel.

"And in an operational world, it allows us to do missions much, much longer and much, much farther from home," he said.

Capt. Erik Cadorette, another crewmember from the flight, said the refueling team helps the fighters do "the big-play stuff."

"We're basically giving them the gas so that they can essentially complete their mission how they're trained to fight," Cadorette said.

The Stratotanker design has been in use since the 1950s, but it's not the only Cold War-era aircraft supporting modern fighter jets at the exercise.

Three E-3 AWACS -- which serve as flying command-and-control control centers for battle spaces -- also hearken back to the Soviet Union era.

"Think of us as the eyes and ears of the fight," said Lt. Col. Kyle Anderson, the squadron leader of two E-3s from Kadena. "So when we put the situational awareness out to our fighter pilots and tankers, we essentially manage the air battle."

One of the airplanes came off the production line in 1981, the year Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency.

"It's an oldie but a goodie," Anderson said. "We've slowly been making updates all along, so it's still relevant. It still does a really good job of providing airborne command and control."

Cope North has grown so large that it requires three E-3s, he said.

"We've had 60-plus airplanes go out to the airspace, and that's pretty hectic," said Anderson, who is fond of sports analogies.

Imagine a football stadium on a moonless night and no headsets to communicate, he said. "We bring light to the football field and bring headsets to all our players. They'll know exactly what they're seeing, while the bad guys don't have that."

The crew of the E-3 tracks what is happening in the battle space and points out to fighter pilots "what they should see," he said. "Then they decide what they want to do. We don't necessarily control them."

"Our number one goal is to get the proper air picture to all our fighters and all our assets in our airspace," said 1st Lt. Aaron Zendejas, an air weapons officer.

The interior of an E-3 is cramped and windowless, and missions can last up to 20 hours.

"You have to love to fly," Zendejas said, "love the smell of fuel in the morning."

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