AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- The lieutenant lowered a tactical vest over his head with practiced confidence. His face displayed the cool composure born of constant training. As he straps on his helmet, an aircraft circles overhead, preparing for the first strike of the day.
Minutes later, ordnance begins raining down at the officer's command. First Lt. Patrick Bonner and his team of tactical air control party members act as mobile air controllers, coordinating with pilots and ground commanders to deliver airpower, maintaining communications and providing precision close-air support, using aircraft and artillery. On this particular mission, 8th Air Support Operations Squadron TACPs worked with Slovenian military counterparts to direct Slovenian aircraft on specified training targets. "We train with the Slovenian TACPs once every couple of months," said Bonner, an air liaison officer who is part of a select group of commissioned Airmen overseeing TACP units. "On this mission, we conducted 12 airstrikes as a unit to help keep us proficient in our duties." The air liaison career field was created in 2010 and Bonner was one of the first graduates to go through the nine-month training course.
"I joined the Air Force to originally pay back my student loans, but I also wanted something challenging," Bonner said. "At the time, '13L' (the Air Force specialty code for ALOs) was brand new and exactly the perfect fit for me. There have been some ups and downs but I enjoy it and have not regretted my choice."
Both enlisted members and officers go through the same Tactical Air Command and Control Apprentice Course at the TACP schoolhouse at Hurlburt Field, Fla.
"We both have the same training, from the same schoolhouse, which in turn allows us to trust each other to get the mission done," said Airman 1st Class Phonchai Hansen, an 8th ASOS TACP member. "I can relate to what he (Bonner) went through and vice versa."
ALOs are required to complete six training courses before graduation. They must learn how to navigate through harsh terrain during all weather conditions, operate tactical vehicles and communication equipment, provide tactical advice and coordinate close-air support.
"The fail rate for our career field is very high," said Staff Sgt. Joshua Cullins, an 8th ASOS TACP member. "It's hard enough to become a TACP, but to then become an ALO is even more difficult." Even after graduating, ALOs must continue their training to ensure they are prepared for the varied situations that can present themselves during a deployed mission, to include joint terminal attack controller certifications and survival, evasion, resistance and escape training. "The most difficult part of the training is the mindset of it all," Bonner said. "It's very difficult to learn because there are so many moving pieces; you have to be able to think and act, all within seconds.
"You have to continue pushing yourself," he said. "Depending on how great of a TACP you want to be is how hard one challenges himself." TACP members constantly try to improve their skills, which helps them be prepared for any situation, to include deployments.
Bonner's role in a deployment is quite different than what his enlisted troops find themselves doing on a day-to-day basis. "My focus during a deployment is liaising with the Army and giving them a grasp on how to best use aircraft in terms of the air-to-ground fight," he said. "Occasionally, I get to go out with my unit and implement airstrikes." While deployments can be rough at times, most TACP members agree the best part about the job is calling in airstrikes and watching ordnance drop a few hundred yards away. "When everything clicks, (getting on the radio, talking to the pilot and coordinating an airstrike) it's a blast," Bonner said.