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Train like you fight; realistic opponents make for capable pilots

F-1 Mirages from Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, undergo preflight checks at Naval Air Station Key West, Florida, July 13, 2021. The Airborne Tactical Advantage Company sent their assets to NAS Key West in support of the 43rd Fighter Squadron’s capstone event where the squadron’s student pilots practiced dissimilar combat air training. (U.S. Air Force photo by Brad Sturk)

F-1 Mirages from Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, undergo preflight checks at Naval Air Station Key West, Florida, July 13, 2021. The Airborne Tactical Advantage Company sent their assets to NAS Key West in support of the 43rd Fighter Squadron’s capstone event where the squadron’s student pilots practiced dissimilar combat air training. (U.S. Air Force photo by Brad Sturk)

A contractor F-1 Mirage flies over Ft. Worth Alliance Airport, Texas, Aug. 19, 2019. This was the first time an F-1 owned by a private adversary air company had flown in United States airspace. (Courtesy photo)

A contractor F-1 Mirage flies over Ft. Worth Alliance Airport, Texas, Aug. 19, 2019. This was the first time an F-1 owned by a private adversary air company had flown in United States airspace. (Courtesy photo)

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --

No federal endorsement is intended.

Projecting unrivaled combat airpower requires a lot of training in and out of the classroom. While both are equally important, some of the most valuable training a pilot can get is by strapping into the cockpit of their aircraft and going head-to-head with another pilot in another fighter. This is where the Airborne Tactical Advantage Company comes into play.

ATAC provides Tyndall Air Force Base and the rest of the Department of Defense with the unique capability of playing the “bad guy” in aerial exercises such as the Weapons Systems Evaluation Program, Checkered Flag, and Agile Flag. Rather than using just the T-38 Talon to simulate going against a hostile fighter jet, ATAC has five F-1 Mirage fighter jets at Tyndall to give the pilots a run for their money.

F-1 Mirages are a second-generation fighter aircraft manufactured for the French air force and have greater speed and maneuverability than the T-38, making for a more realistic opponent. The Talon was designed as a trainer to familiarize pilots with flying at supersonic speeds.

“The F-1s at Tyndall primarily support student training for the 43d and 58th Fighter Squadrons at Eglin Air Force Base,” said Christian Kane, ATAC director of operations for Tyndall and Eglin AFB. “These aircraft were purchased from the French air force and are now contractor owned and contractor operated, which translates into cost savings for the government. We are continuously upgrading our capabilities to keep pace with evolving threats and to ensure we are continuing to provide realistic threat replication.”

Simulated red air, or enemy air forces, training is as close as a pilot can get to real world engagements. This gives them a feel for going up against another aircraft with similar maneuverability and capabilities. While in theory any pilot can fly in an adversary role, experience is literally the best teacher in this case.

“Each of our pilots have thousands of hours of flight time in various fighter aircraft,” said Kane. “Our permanent party pilots at Tyndall each have over 20 years of experience in the Air Force or Navy, flying F-15 Eagles, F-16 Fighting Falcons, F-18 Hornets or F-22 Raptors. Our maintenance team also has vast amounts of experience on many different aircraft. Their experience and skill sets are key to our highly efficient operations to produce as many sorties as possible.”

Typically, student pilots would take turns going up against each other with instructors in the mix. This is not ideal since it takes time away from the students learning all of the intricacies of being a fully trained pilot. Involving units like ATAC in the training of new pilots is key to making them well-rounded upon graduation.

“Having a unit dedicated to adversary air is an invaluable asset,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Danaher, 43d FS director of operations. “Students get to face off with seasoned pilots and get to really focus on their training and working together as a team to overcome that gap in skill. The contractors fly up to 1,000 sorties a year, which saves us 1,000 sorties of wear and tear on our own jets and time away from students learning.”

With ATAC support, students are able to focus on training to fly the way they will in the real world and prevent units from pulling other students, pilots or aircraft from other missions. The most efficient and cost-effective way to provide the students with realistic training is through adversary air.

“Each sortie ATAC flies is one less sortie the 43d FS or 58th FS has to dedicate to flying a red air mission,” Kane said. “They are able to accelerate their training because we are able to generate those sorties for them. They are also able to focus more on blue air, training like they will fight in combat, rather than spending time and fuel having to simulate being a red air adversary.”

The impact of having a home station adversary unit can be felt in more places than just the flight line. The Mirages allow several of Tyndall’s tenant unit to gain valuable and continuous training with real aircraft that they may not receive if ATAC was not here.

 “We support home station units, transient units during exercises, and training units like the 337th Air Control Squadron,” Kane said. “We help to maintain proficiency for the air traffic controllers, provide a large volume of command and control training opportunities for the 81st and 337th ACS, and do our part help bolster the flying mission while the base is undergoing reconstruction and preparing for its future missions.”