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173rd Fighter Wing hosts Sentry Eagle exercise

KINGSLEY FIELD, Ore. -- Sentry Eagle marked the history books for the 30th year since its inception in 1986 with the 2017 iteration of the exercise here in Klamath Falls, Ore July 20 -23.

The large-force, biennial exercise drew 48 visiting aircraft from around the country from as far away as Virginia and Texas. The Gunfighters from the 149th Fighter Wing in San Antonio, Texas began flying with the unit one week prior and following the exercise the 162nd Wing remained on station for two more weeks with their F-16 aircraft. Both units used the opportunity to fly dissimilar air combat training missions with the 173rd Fighter Wing F-15 Eagles.

“We have 44 aircraft from off station,” said Lt. Col. Jon Vanbragt, the project officer responsible for organizing the effort. 

Although the open house serves as a tool to thank the community of the Klamath Basin for what Col. Jeff Smith calls one of the most supportive local communities in all of the Air Guard and the Air Force, the local pilots look forward to a different facet of the exercise.

“Sentry Eagle is an opportunity for instructor pilots here at Kingsley Field to participate in large-force air-to-air exercises, to practice the latest techniques and to operate with aircraft across the inventory,” said Vanbragt. “It’s an opportunity for us to really sharpen our skills.” 

Over the four days myriad aircraft launched each time to participate in large-force exercises, simulating the way an air war would take place. The fighters work as a team, learning to overcome differences like service affiliation, in the case of the visiting Navy pilots, and across unit affiliations in the case of the other visitors.

Smith said when the pilots sit for the debrief immediately following the mission sortie, they harvest the greatest value in clarifying communications and learning to function as a cohesive unit, exactly like they would in real-world circumstances. 

The logistics to make the exercise a reality can be daunting; the 141st Air Refueling Wing supplied two KC-135 Tankers for the duration of the exercise and hotels booked up solid to house all of the visiting Airmen and Sailors. The effort to bring it all to fruition began some time ago and involved many hours of work.

“Over a year in the planning process, with a team of over 50 people planning, coordinating and executing,” said Vanbragt.

Each iteration of the exercise leaves its mark both on the base and on the local community.

“Having 400-plus people for a week meant every hotel was booked,” said Vanbragt. “This town was literally bursting at the seams with personnel participating in the exercise.”

All of that translates into positive economic numbers for the city who also benefit from the visitors who come for the open house, some ad far away as New Zealand and the Netherlands.

Once day-one of the exercise arrived it was up to Kingsley Field to keep things rolling smoothly. One example of the increased workload is the demand for fuel.

“Usually around 600 to 700 thousand gallons is what we pump in a month and we did that in under a week,” said Staff Sgt. Alex Huntsman, the fuels accountant for the logistics and readiness squadron.

What made the 2017 Sentry Eagle unique was the integration of the newest airframe to join the Air Force inventory—the F-35, which participated in the exercise and was on display during the open house.

“The 4th-5th generation fighter integration was a true test of our capabilities and was the first time we've hosted a ‘next generation’ platform and capability on the ramp here at Kingsley,” Vanbragt said.

Although this Sentry Eagle 2017 has just concluded, for some it is time to begin looking down the road two years at the next one.