The F-16 fighters are the stars of the 8th rotation of the Polish Military Contingent Orlik (PMC Orlik) . The mission has been a success due to the hard work of many people, not only pilots.
“We have created a mini Krzesiny base [the 31st Tactical Air Base in Krzesiny] here, at the Lithuanian air base in Šiauliai,” says LtCol Adam “Monk” Kalinowski, the commander of the 8th rotation of the Polish Military Contingent, an experienced F-16 pilot and instructor. At the beginning of January 2019, when Poland was deployed within the frame of NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission, F-16 fighters came to Šiauliai together with a group of pilots. They are directly responsible for missions of intercepting aircraft which get dangerously close to the Baltic States borders and have no flight plan or cannot be contacted. However, many more people work for the success of the missions. Pilots are supported by specialists who are worth their weight in gold, as the contingent commander emphasizes. They are technicians who take care of the F-16s; armament specialists, responsible for rockets and missiles slung under the aircraft; operations officers who coordinate interception missions; “life support” soldiers concerned with the pilots’ equipment; as well as logistics, meteorologists, drivers, reconnaissance officers, doctors and medics. Thanks to them, everything in the contingent works like a Swiss watch.
Special Tasks Soldiers
The duty in Šiauliai is performed by pilots of the 31st Tactical Air Base in Krzesiny. “The pilots I took with me are young, but I have no basis to doubt their skills. They had completed proper trainings and gone through the certification process,” explains LtCol Adam Kalinowski. “Besides, they are young age-wise, but not at the beginning of their military service. Each of the pilots has obtained the »combat ready« status, so they are ready to execute combat missions,” adds the deputy commander. Some of them are also already familiar with missions of this type. They perform similar tasks when on duty in Poland. However, they point out that they do much more during the Baltic Air Policing duty and their missions are far more versatile. “Within three months, I performed more interceptions than during two years in Poland. We also meet many different types of aircraft in the air, from transport, through reconnaissance, to combat machines,” says one of the pilots. Some pilots, however, have performed their first interception while deployed within the PMC Orlik. “One of the boys had a very interesting combat baptism. During the first mission in his life he intercepted a transport aircraft under the cover of several fighters. It wasn’t the most convenient situation, but you don’t get to choose your tasks here,” says Adam Kalinowski.
When an “Alfa Scramble” order is communicated, two aircraft take off. One is piloted by the commander, and the other one by his wingman. “This is the standard observed almost everywhere in the world,” explains the deputy commander. The wingman covers the commander during the operation. The crews of the armed F-16s have exactly 15 minutes to scramble.
The Polish aircraft deployed within the Baltic Air Policing mission have to be airworthy and ready to take off in the event of an alert. Technicians of the 31st Tactical Air Base working at the Lithuanian base always make sure this is the case. They are very experienced people, who have proven themselves both in Poland and during many international exercises. The technical service team is made up of, among others, technicians, engine and armament specialists, and experts on entering appropriate codes into the F-16s’ systems, which are necessary in electronic combat.
“In Lithuania, we are on duty 24/7, just like the pilots,” says “Maggie,” one of the technicians. He is responsible for the technical state and take-off readiness of two aircraft: the main one and the reserve one. “If there were any unexpected defect in the first aircraft after an »Alfa Scramble« alert, there wouldn’t be time to analyze what was wrong. The pilot simply has to take the reserve aircraft,” adds the technician. In order to keep all aircraft ready, the F-16s stationing at the Lithuanian base go through numerous technical inspections. There is servicing that needs to be done after a certain number of hours in the air, other inspections are performed weekly or monthly. Depending on the type of service, the technicians pay attention to every single bolt, or check only the systems necessary to perform a combat mission. “We conduct a more detailed service after, for example, two missions performed by the given F-16. However, the fighters undergo a shorter inspection before every flight. We call it the »walk around«. Each service is performed according to special checklists including all the elements that need to be checked,” says “Piter,” the leader of the technical team.
Combat duty requires a special kind of service. After a pilot enters the F-16’s cabin, the technicians perform a quick “launch” inspection, and directly after the flight they conduct “recovery” service. Also, combat readiness of the aircraft has to be restored after every flight. “We must perform several activities, again according to a checklist. If we notice a defect, and we need time to fix it, the aircraft is excluded from combat duty until everything is ok,” explains Piter. What does ok mean? “We do everything to ensure a safe flight for the pilot on duty. We only perform the necessary activities, though, because time is of utmost importance here. It is enough for the pilots to feel safe,” adds Maggie. The technicians cannot talk about the details of their work. “It is combat duty, some things are simply classified,” emphasize Piter and Maggie.
The technicians are responsible not only for the success of the mission, but also for the pilot’s life. “If I weren’t absolutely sure that I know what I’m doing, the stress would keep me awake at night. I know I have the necessary knowledge, experience, and I have confidence in myself.” Says Piter. Maggie agrees with him: “Knowledge gives you certainty that the service was performed well. I am also well aware of what could happen if...,” he admits, and adds: “All this helps me keep the stress under control.” They both admit that any kind of pressure is the worst thing for them. “Our time frame is very rigid. There is no way we can do something faster,” they explain.
Armament specialists also play a very important part during combat duty. However, for security reasons, the details of their service are kept secret. Some of their tasks include mounting armament on the F-16s and checking it before each “Alfa Scramble” alert take-off. Missiles stay mounted on the Polish fighters throughout the whole time they perform the Baltic Air Policing duty, even during training. “When we are doing a training flight, it can change into a combat flight at any moment. We are always prepared for that,” emphasizes LtCol Kalinowski. “We are equipped with the AIM-120C AMRAAM and the AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles, and a 20-mm six-barrel gun,” he explains, adding that: “We can use the armament upon an order given by the CAOC [Combined Air Operations Centre] or when somebody starts shooting at us.”
The Red Button
There is a room with a “NATO Secret” level security qualification, where PMC Orlik operations officers work. They cannot leave the room at any time during the 24 hours of their duty. The windows are blinded by special shades, they are not allowed to use cell phones. Why is the security level so high? “We are the ones that push the so-called “red button” and communicate to the people on duty the »Alfa Scramble« alert. We get the information from the CAOC and pass it on through a megaphone to the aircraft crew on duty, as well as the technicians or drivers,” says Czarek, an operations officer of the 8th rotation of PMC Orlik.
Operations officers’ work is closely connected to the two pilots on duty, their missions and trainings. “During the duty, we are responsible for everything that happens around them: we check the communications, we monitor the weather, we plan training flights,” enumerates Ania, who serves at PMC Orlik. Operations officers also contact the CAOC and the Operational Command of Branches of Armed Forces, to which Orlik is subordinate.
Both operations officers are experienced navigators, who in Poland deal with securing flights of, among others, the F-16 or the MiG-29 pilots on duty. “It’s a pity that we don’t perform such tasks here, but we can nevertheless learn about combat duty from another perspective, not only through the prism of our navigation devices,” says Ania. There are two guiding points where Baltic Air Policing navigators work: in Lithuania and in Estonia. Even though only Lithuanians, Estonians and Latvians work there, Poles can join them at any time if need be. Such a situation happened during the 8th rotation, when our navigators supported Lithuanians during the “Quick Reaction Alert” mission.
The 8th rotation of PMC Orlik has performed over 20 missions upon “Alfa Scramble” alerts, many more than the former rotations of Polish fighters. Recipe for success? People who are aware of what they are taking part in. “Ok, we are not in the center of an armed conflict, but I’m aware that I’m preparing armed aircraft, flying in combat missions to protect the sky above the Baltic sea. That gives me a lot of satisfaction,” says Maggie. The commander of PMC Orlik also emphasizes the combat character of the mission: “There is stress, adrenaline, and real weapons, which are not only on our aircraft,” says LtCol Adam Kalinowski. “But the fact is that we have been trained to be combat pilots and these are exactly the tasks we are supposed to perform.”
autor zdjęć: Bartosz Bera