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NEWS | July 28, 2011

Safe Skies 2011: Air National Guard, European partners build skills

By Tech. Sgt. Charles Vaughn, U.S. Air Force 144th Fighter Wing

MIRGOROD AIR BASE, Ukraine - Airmen from the 144th Fighter Wing at Fresno Air National Guard Base, Calif., are partnered with Ukrainian and Polish airmen here through the National Guard State Partnership Program.

Through this program, they have developed a strong tie to this former Soviet bloc-country that has been displayed during Safe Skies 2011.

Safe Skies 2011 is a two-week multinational flying event where members of the California and Alabama Air National Guard have been helping prepare airmen from Ukraine and Poland to better protect their airspace during Euro 2012, the upcoming European soccer championship games.

Air National Guard F-16 Fighting Falcons have played a major role in this preparation by flying air sovereignty missions with both the Polish and Ukrainian air forces.

Officials from the California Air National Guard planned this event since 2009.

"Our partnership has laid the foundation for this event, and this engagement is providing Ukraine an amazing opportunity to learn more about air sovereignty operations as they prepare for the Euro 2012," said Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Swertfager, Safe Skies project officer and a member of the 144th FW.

During Safe Skies 2011, more than 60 air sovereignty air intercepts were scheduled.

Members of the Western Air Defense Sector, who traveled here, provided support and work with their Ukrainian and Polish partners. Ukrainian SU-27 Flankers, MiG-29 Fulcrums and Polish F-16 Fighting Falcons intercepted Air National Guard aircraft during these air sovereignty events.

The Air National Guard F-16s acted like distressed or hijacked aircraft, creating a potential airborne threat over the Ukrainian or Polish populace. Scenarios like these required Ukrainian and Polish air force support and forced the partners to test their alert-response mechanisms, better preparing them for real airborne threats.

"We learned so much from the events of Sept. 11, 2001," said Air Force Lt. Col. Kirk Toomey, Safe Skies operations project officer and alert commander at the 144th FW.

"We want to share from our experiences and better enable them to protect their citizens from any terrorist threats. Protecting the Euro spectators is similar to us protecting the football fans watching the Super Bowl."

During this event, the Guard pilots also worked with Polish Airmen to test any communication limitations specific to air-sovereignty operations.

"The collaboration with Poland is also a very important aspect of this event," Toomey said. "Working with Poland is similar to the U.S. working with Canada. Understanding each others' tactics is critical to the collaboration required in air sovereignty missions.

"This state partnership initiative sets the foundation for future training with Ukraine," he said. "The lessons learned during this engagement will provide us with valuable information for deploying Fresno fighter aircraft and personnel in the future."

The two week event concludes today with a friendship dinner.

"It's a time for us to reflect on the interactions that have taken place during Safe Skies 2011 and an opportunity to look forward to future partnership events," Swertfager said.



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