RIONEGRO, Colombia - The South Carolina Air National Guard wrapped up a full week in Rionegro supporting its state partner during the Colombian air force's Feria Aeronautica Internacional – Colombia, July 13-16.
The week started with two Swamp Fox F-16s flying to Colombia and meeting up with the Colombian air force's Kfirs, based in Palenquero for some mid-air training. The series of radio drills and intercepts which lasted for an hour and a half were aimed at assisting the Colombians in preparing for Red Flag in March 2018.
U.S. Air Force Col. Nick Gentile, commander of the 169th Fighter Wing, called the experience both "productive" and "a positive bi-lateral exercise".
"To meet and exercise on a deployment down is a first," said Gentile.
While this was the first time the 169th Fighter Wing had deployed and exercised fighters to Colombia straight from South Carolina, it was not the first time the unit has sent F-16s to Rionegro. In 2014, the wing sent 100 Airmen and six jets here in a two-week exercise called "Relampago" or lightning in Spanish. Each year the South Carolina Air National Guard participates in subject matter expert exchanges with the Colombian air force ranging from medical to legal engagements.
The South Carolina National Guard has been paired with the Republic of Colombia through the National Guard's State Partnership Program since July 2012.
After arriving in Colombia, the 169th joined with a KC-135 from Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, a KC-10 from the 349th Air Mobility Wing at Travis Air Force Base, California, and the Air Combat Command's Viper East Demo Team from Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, to participate in the four-day air show. U.S. Strategic Command also coordinated a B-52 flyover during the air show's kick-off ceremony.
The Unites States Air Force's participation in the air show provides an opportunity to strengthen the military-to-military relationships with regional partners and provides the opportunity to meet with Colombian air force counterparts.
"The Colombian people are extremely friendly and welcoming," said Master Sgt. John Bonovich, an F-16 avionics technician with the 169th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. "They are eager to work with us, and good partners all the way around."
Bonovich said during the F-16 and Kfir intercepts some communications issues were identified and the South Carolina Air Guard assisted in correcting those issues to improve interoperability between the two air forces.
Bonovich, and the other Swamp Fox Airmen, who came for the air show spent their week interacting with the public, shaking hands, exchanging hugs and posing for thousands of pictures.
The week also included a key leader engagement between the state's adjutant general, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston, and leaders from the South Carolina Air National Guard, all meeting with Colombian air force leadership, U.S. Air Forces Southern commander, Lt. Gen. Mark Kelly and the U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker. The series of meetings throughout the week further strengthened the partnership and helped identify areas the South Carolina National Guard and the Colombian military can work together in the future.
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Chip Barton, Colombian Desk Officer at U.S. Air Forces Southern, said the week was a huge success.
"We are demonstrating our commitment to the Colombian people by our presence here," Barton said.