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Vermont Air Guard Completes Historic First

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Ryan Campbell,
  • 158th Fighter Wing

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. – Vermont’s 158th Fighter Wing returned home from Germany, completing the National Guard’s first overseas deployment of the F-35A Lightning II.

The eight aircraft flown by the Vermont Air National Guard’s 134th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron left in April along with more than 200 Airmen to Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. The Green Mountain Boys conducted shield and assurance missions as part of ongoing NATO operations in Europe.

“We were there flying F-35s to support NATO and flew missions along the entirety of NATO’s eastern flank from Estonia to Bulgaria,” said Lt. Col. John MacRae, commander of the 134th.

During the three-month deployment, the Green Mountain Boys flew over 450 sorties totaling more than 2,000 flying hours. They were regularly joined on these flying missions by aircraft from other NATO countries and landed in a few of them for further integration.

“We’re here … because they needed us,” said MacRae. “Hill [Air Force Base] was out here on their immediate response force and they were at the end of their window and we were available and ready to go.”

MacRae said the 158th Fighter Wing’s F-35s and crews landed in Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia and North Macedonia, meeting with civilian and military leadership to highlight relations between the NATO members.

After being the first Air National Guard wing to receive F-35s in 2019, the 158th was deemed “operational” at the start of 2022, a term that meant the wing and it’s Airmen were qualified to deploy and perform the types of missions they carried out in Europe.

“Most of the sorties we flew were pretty rewarding based on the capabilities we bring with fifth-gen fighters,” said MacRae. “We were able to do an amazing amount of work in such a short period of time.”

Just a week after arriving in Germany, MacRae said they had a jet at an air show, very quickly got to the skies over the Baltics and were flying other larger sorties of up to eight aircraft.

“We saw many people step up as multi-capable Airmen,” said Maj. Brian Wagner, pilot and chief of advanced programs for the 158th. “What that really means is you’ve got someone who has one trade by experience and by schooling in the Air Force. However, they are asked to do things that are well outside of their realm based upon need and available people.”

Wagner said many of the Vermont Airmen jumped into unfamiliar jobs they were eager to learn. 

“For me, it allows me to put on a couple different hats,” said Tech. Sgt. Justin Oddy, the airfield manager assigned to the 134th. “I wear an airfield management hat as well as aviation resource management hat, helping out with aircrew flight equipment as well as some security procedures. It’s been an amazing experience.” 

This deployment wasn’t the first for many of the Airmen, but it was much different than others.

“My last deployment, it was much more of a working 12- hour shifts. ... You’re waking up, going to work, eating lunch, going to bed and repeating that every day,” said Oddy. “This deployment, it was a dynamic environment …and I went to 10 different countries.”

Many countries the Green Mountain Boys were sent to already had long-standing relationships with the National Guard through the State Partnership Program, giving them a lot of common ground.

Oddy explained when they were in Bulgaria, the chief of the base took him and other Airmen to his wife’s restaurant for dinner.

“The chief spoke so highly [of the Air National Guard]... since Bulgaria is state partners with Tennessee, and everyone in the Bulgarian Air Force gets the opportunity to go to Airman Leadership School and the Noncommissioned Officer Academy at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base in Knoxville,” said Oddy.

By the second week of August, the Vermont Airmen had wrapped up the deployment and headed home, where they were welcomed back at all hours of the day and night by friends and family.

“The Green Mountain Boys successfully accomplished our deployment to USAFE [U.S. Air Forces in Europe] and I’m proud to be part of such a talented team,” said MacRae. “We volunteered to give up our summer in Vermont to generate and fly sorties to defend NATO’s eastern flank. It was a rewarding three months and our small wing had a big strategic impact.”