ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- A young pilot dangles dangerously far from the grassy South Dakota tundra, held on by nothing more than a strap, a cable and a medic from the South Dakota National Guard.
As the Soldier and Airmen are hoisted up toward the HH-60 Pave Hawk medical helicopter, fake blood runs down the captain’s face.
Personnel recovery is a pilot’s nightmare, but for Capt. Scott Richards, a B-1 pilot assigned to the 34th Bomb Squadron, it is a reality. Fortunately for him, this is just an exercise.
The exercise began the night before at 6 p.m. Nov. 15, as 37 aircraft filled the skies over Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota – marking the start of the fourth large force exercise in the Powder River Training Complex at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota.
Just over a full year after the airspace opened, these exercises have nearly quadrupled in size.
The latest iteration, Combat Raider 17-01, was hosted Nov. 15-17, 2016, in the PRTC, testing several agencies cohesion and coordination.
The exercise was broken down into five main objectives: counter-air, strategic strikes, strike coordination and reconnaissance, close air support and personnel recovery.
“Exercises like Combat Raider serve many purposes,” said Maj. Christopher Winklepleck, the 8th Air Force deputy director of plans and policy. “It demonstrates the capability and reach of our aircraft, it keeps aircrews and supporting units proficient and also constantly tests our interoperability in an ever-changing battlefield environment.”
Bomber, fighter jets, tankers and ground forces all played part in the three-day, night-time exercise.
“Combat Raider displays the capability of a bomber wing to bring together multiple Combat Air Force platforms and integrate at the squadron level in a locally owned and managed airspace,” said Winklepleck.
Along with several Air Force squadrons from across the United States, teams from Canada, Great Britain and the South Dakota National Guard joined the training event.
“The intent was to integrate lots of different platforms,” said Capt. Devin Ivy, the officer in charge of the exercise and assigned to the 28th Operations Support Squadron.
Tactical Air-Control-Party members, Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape specialists and KC-10 Extender aerial refueling crews from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, lent their skills to help accomplish multiple objectives.
One such task included keeping fighter jets in the sky.
“It’s important for fighters to get experience refueling from tankers so that they understand how we work and what we do,” said Senior Airman Austin Denotter, a boom operator assigned to the 32nd Aerial Refueling Squadron at JBMDL. “It also lets them know that we’re always there. There’s always fuel in the sky for them.”
Back on the ground, Airmen coordinate the local airspace.
“Our purpose is to coordinate air support in order to allow friendly forces to recover downed pilots,” said Staff Sgt. Edward Breen, a TACP Airmen assigned to the 5th Air Support Operations Squadron at Joint-Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. “We are the link between air and ground.”
These Special Forces Airmen controlled the airspace around the PRTC, calling in simulated airstrikes and coordinating a show-of-force with a B-1 crew.
“Exercises like this are important because it gives us exposure to tasks that we’re not training to on a regular basis,” said Breen. “It gives us exposure to different assets like bombers. We don’t usually work with them that often so when we do, it gives our guys more experience.”
Successfully learning from and completing each objective, the exercise proved the effectiveness of the U.S. military and their ability to work together to accomplish large-scale operations.
“The units were able to work very well given the constraints of them being dislocated,” said Ivy, who was with the exercise since its beginning six month prior to execution. “This is always going to be a challenge we’re going to have to overcome.”
Despite being geographically separated, every unit performed their part seamlessly. According to Ivy, the complete review and analysis of the exercise is under way and should be completed early December.
“We realized what potential we have here at Ellsworth AFB with all of its support agencies, the operating squadrons and the airspace,” said Ivy. “In the end, I think there were some great lessons learned – it was a raving success.”