An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Range Support: Former combat controllers still "first there" at assault zone

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Joe McFadden
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
Editor's note: The 1st Special Operations Support Squadron Range Support flight is dedicated to providing Air Force Special Operations Command, the 1st Special Operations Wing, joint and coalition units with realistic training scenarios in preparation for real world challenges. The flight is comprised of four departments: opposition forces, assault zones, maritime training, and Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. This is part three of a four-part series highlighting each of those divisions.

After reserving the air space and establishing the runway at an undisclosed location on the Eglin Range May 24, all Ronald Stiles, 1st Special Operations Support Squadron Range Support flight assault zone member, had to do was wait for a radio signal from the scheduled C-130 when it was ready to land.

With the lengthy tasks of surveying and marking the area, setting up the night vision-detectable lights on the runway, factoring in the wind pressure and weather conditions, communicating with the operations tower on the right frequency and preparing for proper safety contingencies completed on his checklist, the most pressing resource he presently needed was patience.

To pass the time, he peered over his smartphone, and of all the applications he could run and the Web sites he could visit, he chose to play an air traffic control simulation game. While most people occupy themselves with video games quite the opposite of their own realities, his diversion mirrored the very same feat he was about to accomplish.

"Once you're a CCT, you always get back to it somehow," Mr. Stiles said, while thumbing his device to make another successful landing in the game.

Although he may no longer don the scarlet beret, Mr. Stiles' current job as an Assault Zone member is very similar to his experiences as a combat controller--so much that having been one is a prerequisite to join.

He and four other members of the Assault Zone flight draw on their combined experiences of more than 60 years in the field to assist Range Support clientele to successfully attain their Mission Essential Task Lists.

"We give Airmen an opportunity before they go down range or into a combat zone to know what they have to do to make the mission successful," said Albert Money, Assault Zone member. "While our team's experiences come from different areas around the world, we've got the combined knowledge of being CCTs that we share with others. It's still a very tactical job."

For this assignment, an MC-130H Combat Talon II from the 15th Special Operations Squadron would execute an engine-running, off-loading scenario, evaluating how quickly the loadmasters could unload tons of cargo and the crew back in the air. Other exercises may include parachute drops of personnel or equipment as low as 250 feet over land or water.

But days before any aircraft leaves the base airfield for an exercise, the Assault Zone team addresses work operational safety, ensuring there are no conflicts with air space and boat traffic in the water. For daytime drops, they will utilize raised-angle markers to indicate to aircrew the desired target.

"We mainly do it for their accuracy," said Dewayne Morey, Assault Zone flight chief. "We want to make sure they're able to do an effective resupply over smaller drop zones that are right next to their troops."

In all exercises, Assault Zone members act as air traffic control, communicating with the air crew via radio over the details and schedule of landing, all while using the same processes and phraseologies used in combat zones. In fact, according to Lt. Col. Jeremy Kokenes, 1st SOSS director of operations, the Assault Zone teams conduct and control more landings than the air traffic control tower at Hurlburt Field.

Many Assault Zone exercises at the range employ other divisions within the Range Support flight. If Opposition Forces members represent the malicious adversaries the Airmen may face in combat, the Assault Zone team members are proud of their reputation as "the good guys."

"It's kind of awkward for us when we know OPFOR is down there, because, as former CCTs, we want to inform the Airmen that they're being targeted," Mr. Morey said. "Of course, it's all part of their aircrew training."

Regardless of the presence of simulated enemy fire, Airmen will often return to the Assault Zone to repeat exercises so loadmasters can improve their accuracy and proximity to their desired points of impact.

"Precision is extremely important to what we do," said Tech. Sgt. Trent Blair, 15th SOS loadmaster. "There's a ton of coordination that goes on to make these drops as realistic as possible because you have to train like you fight."

While Assault Zones are not unique to Hurlburt Field, the range complex enhances its training variety and distinguishes the program from others.

"To do this at the range is phenomenal," said Capt. Matthew Prochazka, 15th SOS navigator. "You've got the ground piece and the air piece training together on a regular basis. They provide really good training that helps us stay on the combat edge. That really rings true to the joint nature of how [Air Force Special Operations Command] works."

With the essential tasks from the latest exercise met and the ones for the next mission waiting to be planned, Assault Zone flight members say they take pride in knowing the past lessons they learned as combat controllers continues to assist Airmen fly, fight and win the wars of today.

"Everything we do here is related to what we did in our careers," Mr. Morey said. "Admittedly, there was more play in it when we were the ones doing the jumping and the diving. But I still enjoy it, and I really wouldn't want to do anything else."