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Pilot proving grounds; WSEP puts aviators, maintenance, air crew to the test

An aircraft in the sky

A U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagle, assigned to the 159th Fighter Squadron, Jacksonville Air National Guard Base, Florida, takes off at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, Sept. 20, 2021. The 159th FS participated in the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group’s Weapons System Evaluation Program East 21.12, which serves to test pilots and their aircraft during air-to-air combat operations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Tiffany Price)

Man climbing into a fighter jet

A U.S. Air Force Airman with the 335th Fighter Squadron, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, climbs into the cockpit of an F-15E Strike Eagle at Tyndall AFB, Florida, Sept. 20, 2021. The 335th FS participated in the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group’s Weapons System Evaluation Program East 21.12, an exercise designed to test the capabilities of pilots and their aircraft during air-to-air combat operations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Tiffany Price)

Pilot sitting in the cockpit of a plane

A U.S. Air Force Airman with the 335th Fighter Squadron, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, prepares for takeoff at Tyndall AFB, Florida, Sept. 20, 2021. Before takeoff, a pilot must complete a series of preflight safety checks to include inspecting the exterior of the aircraft and the cockpit for any damage. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Tiffany Price)

An F-15 on a flight line

A U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle assigned to the 335th Fighter Squadron, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, taxis before takeoff at Tyndall AFB, Florida, Sept. 20, 2021. The 335th FS participated in Weapons System Evaluation Program East 21.12 while at Tyndall to test the capabilities of their pilots and aircraft during air-to-air combat operations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Tiffany Price)

An F-15 taking off

A U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagle, with the 159th Fighter Squadron assigned to the 125th Fighter Wing, Jacksonville Air National Guard Base, Florida, takes off at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, Sept. 20, 2021. The 159th Fighter Squadron participated in Weapons System Evaluation Program East 21.12, which serves to test pilots and their aircraft during air-to-air combat operations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Tiffany Price)

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- The 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, recently hosted the Weapons System Evaluation Program East 21.12, Sept. 13-24, 2021. The exercise focused on providing maintainers and pilots with the unique experience of using live munitions to enhance readiness for real-world operations.

WSEP is a formal evaluation of a squadron's ability to conduct air-to-air live fire missions. This gives the Air Force and individual units data points of strengths and weaknesses, allowing for tweaks and deviations during training for improvement prior to actual combat.

The data resulting from WSEP gets compiled and briefed in a feedback loop to Department of Defense and Air Force strategic decision makers which directly feeds into the National Defense Strategy. 

“We validate all of the pilots, maintainers, AMMO troops, and crew chiefs to ensure that they can operate efficiently in a combat squadron,” said Lt. Col. “Ajax” Maulsby, commander of the 433rd Weapons Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nevada. “Aside from pilots using live weapons for the first time, the maintenance side also launches, loads, and recovers aircraft with live munitions for the first time. It gives everyone an idea expectation of what it feels like, what common mistakes to avoid, hear some techniques to do increase the chances of neutralizing a threat.”

The 335th Fighter Squadron from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, participated in this iteration with 46 of their F-15E Strike Eagle pilots being first time shooters. Additionally, Florida Air National Guard’s 159th Fighter Squadron had three F-15 Eagle pilots who had never utilized live munitions before.

“Overall, approximately 115 sorties are flown in direct support of WSEP during a two-week period with active participation in employing weapons,” said Lt. Col. Travis Winslow, 53rd WEG deputy commander. “Additionally, visiting units will fly roughly 180 more sorties in the local area executing training missions with each other outside of weapons employment. Eighty-two percent of the pilots that attend get to shoot or drop live weapons. Of those, nearly half are first-time shooters.”

With many pilots being fully qualified without having the chance to use live munitions before, it is imperative they get a feel for the aircrafts’ weapons systems so they know what to expect and build confidence.

“It gives them faith in the equipment and processes, experience and understanding prior to employing it when it counts,” said Winslow. “It minimizes hesitancy in combat when there are actual lives on the line. It’s like the preseason scrimmages prior to a grueling football season. We train hard in peace time to better ourselves in war.”

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