GRAYLING ARMY AIRFIELD, Mich. – The distinctive sound of aircraft propellers echoed over the airfield as dozens of aircraft arrived to take part in the joint and multi-national exercise called Northern Strike 2018 from Aug. 4-18.
The 821st Contingency Response Group (CRG) from Travis Air Force Base, California, deployed two small teams in support of the exercise. With one team at Grayling Army Airfield (AAF) and one at Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center (CRTC), both located in northern Michigan.
Northern Strike is a robust military readiness exercise coordinated by the Michigan Army National Guard and features Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard and military members from Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and United Kingdom working together for total force integration.
With approximately 5,000 participants, the primary mission of the exercise is to maximize the full-spectrum combat readiness of each unit participating.
During the exercise, the CR teams worked alongside multiple Army units and the Air National Guard’s 165th Airlift Wing from Savannah, Georgia.
“It is critical to our mission that our counterparts know how a CR team fits into their operations,” said Capt. Jared Foust, 921st Contingency Response Squadron maintenance flight commander. “Communication is the number one challenge between services. We talk different, our command structure processes info and requests different, and we work different. It comes down to face-to-face meetings with our counterparts to understand how we can better support each other.”
The first mission for the team at Grayling AAF was to help load an Army M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) into a C-130H Hercules aircraft for transportation to the Alpena CRTC.
“We have some influence over every sphere of the movements for this mission,” said Master Sgt. Kyle Prewitt, contingency response team (CRT) chief at Grayling AAF. “It provides a look at some unique mission sets for our CRG members and a wonderful opportunity in smaller scale environment that allows more flexibility for training.”
The small team of aerial porters, air traffic controllers, command and control, communications maintenance and ramp coordinators quickly went into action and started planning all the moving pieces to complete the mission.
“This is the first time I’m going to be able to do my job,” said Airman 1st Class Karley White, 821st Contingency Response Support Squadron aerial porter. “I’m excited,” White exclaimed.
Once the HIMARS was loaded into the C-130, White smiled and quickly crawled underneath it to secure it with chains onto the aircraft floor.
Her face showed a sense of accomplishment and pride once the HIMARS was all secured.
As ground operations continued, the CR air traffic controllers stayed busy working side-by-side with the Michigan Army National Guard to ensure safe and secure air flow for all aircraft participating in the exercise.
Northern Strike also afforded the CR teams a unique training opportunity to expand operational capabilities with rotary wing aircraft and gain sling-load experience.
“Our real-world experience from Hurricane Maria involved a massive amount of rotary wing ops. In response, we are seeking out opportunities like Northern Strike to get all CR personnel familiar with this type of aircraft,” Foust said. “This exercise gives us a chance to work around rotary wing assets daily…I’m talking Navy, Army and Marine helos-all the flavors! Getting our guy’s sling-load capable and comfortable with rotary wing airframes is a need for our customers.”
When asked, how is such a small team able to make a big impact during the exercise? Prewitt said, “It all starts with understanding the customer requirements and communicating what we can provide.”
“Mission planning and trust in your team is a must,” he added.
Prewitt believes that early planning helps build relationships and trust with partner units. Which in turn, allows a CRT chief to make sure their team is well prepared for the mission.
“Everyone takes a lot of pride in being a team who can get any job done…I have never been anything but amazed by how well they do their jobs,” he said. “Our Airmen are always prepared to do whatever the mission asks them to do.”
He knows flexibility is a key factor and even with the best planning efforts there are always changes.
Prewitt explained how the ability of CR Airmen to step out of their comfort zone, and often in uncertain circumstances or unknown places helps prepare them to execute the mission during real-world contingency operations.
“No one here just does their primary job. They are well-rounded Airmen who understand that they are performing a unique mission set,” he said. “Everyone takes pride in their ability to do the hard work in an efficient manner. They prepare everyday for each exercise like it will be the next operational mission.”