UPDATE: Strange lights in the sky were 8-ship night training mission
UPDATE: Remember those strange lights in the sky over Carlton County on Friday, Nov. 15? The Pine Journal just received a more comprehensive description of just what was going on, compliments of the Public Affairs Office of the 133rd Airlift Wing in Minneapolis:
On Nov. 15 the Air Force Reserve's 934th Airlift Wing and the Minnesota Air National Guard's 133rd Airlift Wing combined to execute a night training mission with a formation of eight C-130H aircraft. Both units, co-located at the Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport, took advantage of their proximity to achieve training for aircrews and support agencies. With each wing participating with four aircraft, aircrews were able to train in large formation operations for a fraction of the cost it would take for one wing to launch eight aircraft on their own.
Inter-flying is nothing new to the "Flying Vikings" of the Air Force Reserve and the "Gophers" of the Air National Guard, who regularly combine to launch four-ship formations to maximize training, but launching eight aircraft out of a busy international airport took a little more than the usual coordination.
"We really had great cooperation from all the agencies involved," said Capt. Aaron Kutschera, instructor navigator with the 934th and the mission commander for the flight. "Minneapolis tower and approach control, range control at Ray Miller Army Air Field, the approach and tower controllers at Duluth International Airport; they were all really excited to help us with this mission and it was really a good experience for everyone."
Launching a larger formation from a busy international airport was no easy task.
"Fitting a five-plus mile formation in between the busy airline arrivals at Minneapolis was no small undertaking, but the controllers handled it easily and were excited to see all those airplanes get in the air at one time," said Capt Andy Thomas, a 934th pilot who was stationed in the Minneapolis control tower for the mission, acting as liaison to air traffic control.
The formation departed Minneapolis to the north after dark and executed an Adverse Weather Air Delivery System airdrop on Arno drop zone on Camp Ripley near Brainerd, Minn. This capability uses the on-board radar to ensure navigational precision, allowing the aircraft to deliver supplies, equipment, and personnel at low altitude while still completely enveloped in the clouds. Following the first airdrop, the formation conducted a low-level route into northern Minnesota using night vision goggles, concluding with a container delivery system airdrop. This method, which both the 934th and 133rd have used multiple times in Afghanistan, allows aerial re-supply to isolated ground forces.
All 16 airdrops were right on target, providing an impressive display to the drop zone control team on the ground. "I've been doing this for 30 years, but when I saw those planes go overhead one after another and the loads float right to the center of the zone, it had to be the coolest drop I've ever seen," said Master Sgt. James Courneya, an evaluator loadmaster with the 934th who served as the malfunction officer at the drop zone during the mission. Following a formation instrument approach into Duluth International, the aircraft returned for a visual approach to Minneapolis International.
More than 350 people from nearly every agency in the wing contributed their expertise to result in a successful mission. Reserve and Guard aircraft are always maintained to the highest standards, which resulted in all eight aircraft taking to the air with no problems.
Aerial port personnel gained valuable experience packing and loading the large number of heavy equipment platforms and container delivery system bundles while aircrew flight equipment prepared the large number of night vision goggles and life support systems required to safely fly in formation at night.