ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- High above a small Air National Guard base in the northwest corner of Missouri, the sky is a classroom where Mobility Air Forces air crew members polish their skills until they are the best of the best at what they do.
Rosecrans Air National Guard Base in St. Joseph is home to the Advanced Airlift Tactics Training Center. Its purpose is to provide advanced tactical training to airlift aircrews from across the Air Force, the Marine Corps and 16 allied nations.
“Advanced” is the operative word here. Think of it as grad school for airlifters.
About 105 of the Air Force’s best and most experienced airlift pilots, navigators, loadmasters and intelligence specialists comprise the faculty at the AATTC. The vast majority of AATTC instructors come from the Air Reserve Component, with 19 coming from the Air Force Reserve.
“The Total Force concept is definitely alive and well at the AATTC,” said Col. DeAnna Franks, a Reserve Citizen Airman who serves as the center’s vice commandant. “We have Guard, Reserve and active-duty instructors teaching students from the Guard, Reserve and active duty Air Force, our sister services and a host of allied nations.”
The AATTC has been around for more than 35 years. It got its start when the ANG C-130 Hercules unit stationed at Rosecrans, the 139th Airlift Wing, tried its hand at Red Flag – the Air Force’s two-week aerial combat training exercise – in 1980.
When the wing didn’t fare too well at the exercise, wing leaders came up with a training plan to increase the warfighting effectiveness and survivability of its own aircrews. They soon decided mobility forces throughout the Air Force could benefit from what they were teaching. The center officially opened its doors in 1983.
The Air Force Reserve is committed to developing future leaders and preserving a capable force for the defense of the United States. That’s just what the Reserve Citizen Airmen instructors at the AATTC are doing.
“Since it opened, the AATTC has been the mobility aircrew center of excellence for tactics training,” Franks said. “The majority of crews that come through here are C-130 crews, but we train C-17 crews, KC-135 crews and foreign crews who fly a host of different planes.”
The AATTC currently offers six courses: the Advanced Tactics Aircrew Course, the Combat Aircrew Tactics Studies/Mobility Electronic Combat Officer Course, the Mobility Commanders Tactics Course, the Advanced Airlift Mobility Intelligence Course, the International Mobility Intelligence Course and the Mobility Datalink Managers Course.
The center is perhaps best known for the Advanced Tactics Aircrew Course – a two-week, intensive class where complete aircrews come to train together and learn the latest in tactical maneuvering and threat avoidance.
“ATAC is our bread and butter,” Franks said. “It’s great because entire crews can come and train together as a team. A lot of times, we’ll have crews come to ATAC just before they are scheduled to go on a deployment. They will have the opportunity to do things in the aircraft they have never done before. We get some experienced aircrews come through ATAC and I guarantee there will be some people getting air sick before it’s all over with.”
Air Force Reserve Maj. Edward Brennan is an ATAC instructor. Like all of his fellow instructors, he brings a wealth of experience to the position. An Air Force Academy graduate with experience in the C-130-E, -H and –J, he has piloted Hercules aircraft all around the world, in all kinds of conditions.
“I’ve deployed four or five times and I can say without a doubt that the training students receive here is very similar to what they will see when they deploy,” Brennan said, explaining that ATAC is taught using a crawl, walk, run philosophy.
“We start out giving the students some basic academics on how to survive and be effective in a complex combat environment,” the major said.
“We start out with academics from both our intelligence folks and our flying instructors and then we’ll have them actually fly and have a chance to exercise those academics in the aircraft with an instructor right beside them.”
During the first week of ATAC, crews fly two sorties out of Rosecrans where they work on defensive maneuvers to survive throughout the entire ground threat arena, low-level navigation with an A-10 Warthog close air support mission, airdrops and landing zone work.
For the second week, the entire class deploys to Libby Army Air Field at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. That’s where things really get interesting.
“The terrain around Rosecrans is relatively flat,” Brennan said. “Arizona offers a much more mountainous terrain. It’s very similar to what our crews might see when deployed.”
In Arizona, crews take part in low-level navigation training, dissimilar air combat training (flying against an F-16 Fighting Falcon), hostile environment training and formation flight training, among many other things.
“A big part of what we teach is making sure all of the crew members are interacting the way they should,” Franks said.
Training flights start out with a specific objective, but instructors are constantly throwing monkey wrenches into the scenarios. For example, if an instructor sees one crew member is making most of the decisions or being relied on too heavily, the instructor will say that crew member has just been killed, “what are you going to do now?”
“We force people to get outside of their box and do multiple jobs,” Franks said. “It’s what they are going to have to do in a war-time situation, so it’s imperative that we practice it here first.
“Crews will learn how to maneuver the aircraft in ways they have never done before. Going up to 45 degrees of bank in a C-130 is pretty good. We’ll have them doing 60 degrees of bank while adding some other maneuvers up and down to defeat a threat. It is a truly advanced way for our mobility Airmen to test their tactical skills.”
For many crew members, ATAC is the first time they have the opportunity to fly against a fighter adversary – in this case an F-16. “C-130s aren’t fighters, but there are some things a C-130 can do to deter a fighter aircraft, and this training is really great because the F-16 pilots provide feedback right away – things like, ‘When you did your wing flash, I totally saw you from a mile out. You should hold your angle,’” Franks said.
ATAC is extremely popular with a host of allied nations. “Our allies will send their very best crews to ATAC,” Franks said. “We get the top crews from Germany, Italy, Australia. …We recently had our first crew ever from South Korea. These fliers are dedicated and passionate about wanting to learn. It’s a pleasure to train them. I recently had the opportunity to watch a crew from Italy go through ATAC from start to finish and it was amazing to see the progression. The first flight I flew with them they weren’t comfortable at all. But the final sortie was totally different. They had a whole different attitude about how to maneuver their aircraft. They had truly gone full circle.”
While everything taught at the AATTC is advanced, there’s one course offered at Rosecrans that takes things to a different level altogether – the C-130H Weapons Instructor Course. “The WIC is separate from the AATTC, but it’s a critical component of the training that is offered here at St. Joseph,” Franks said.
“In simplest terms, we’re Top Gun for the Air Force,” said ANG Lt. Col. Mike Brooks, the C-130H WIC course director.
“We bring in instructors who are already fully qualified in the aircraft, who are close to being experts in their respective crew position, and we hone that expertise,” added Maj. Sean Haugsven, a Reserve Citizen Airman who serves as the director of operations for the WIC.
“The crux of the whole course is integration – how to basically take a mission, a national objective, and create a force package to get that mission accomplished,” Haugsven said. “We teach crew members how to be able to execute in any type of threat environment and get the mission accomplished.”
Capt. Ryan McDowell is a Reservist who serves as an intelligence instructor at the WIC. “It’s extremely rewarding to see the aircrew members improve their skills as we prepare them for all of the threats in the spectrum,” he said. “We start out with rudimentary threats and advance all the way to what our near-peers have and prepare them for all of the possible threats.”
At five and a half months long, the course is comprehensive and extremely challenging. “It’s like Undergraduate Pilot Training on steroids,” said Maj. Jon Holland, an Air National Guard C-130 pilot with the 153rd Airlift Wing, Cheyenne, Wyoming, who was midway through the WIC course when interviewed in October. “Honestly, I talked to my family more while I was deployed than I have talked with them during this course. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
That said, Holland was confident he would be a much better crew member when the course was over.
“This class has turned out to be a solid test of the whole person concept,” he said. “Your endurance is tested. Your ability to change the way you think about things and solve problems is tested. Your ability to maintain a positive attitude when nothing is going your way and shake off failure is tested. You’re tested with adversity every day,” he said.
“We teach our students how to take a complex problem and break it down into smaller, solvable chunks,” Haugsven said. “Solve each one of those chunks and then integrate them into one solution and communicate that to other people. They have no idea that is what they are learning while the course is going on, but by the time they get to the end of the course, they realize this is a skillset they now have.”
Traditional Reserve Citizen Airman Maj. Bryan Powell, a pilot with the 908th Airlift Wing, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, was the top graduate from the first C-130H WIC of 2018, earning the C-130H Flying Award, the overall C-130 Academic Award and the overall C-130 Outstanding Graduate Award.
Like most other WIC graduates, Powell said the course was supremely challenging, but definitely worth attending.
“Looking back on it, it was a great course,” he said. “It was extremely frustrating at times – lots of long hours, lots of hard work, but it certainly makes you a better crew member.
“Growing up as a young pilot, you’re always told what to do and how to do it. The ‘why’ part tends to fall off sometimes. The WIC was very much about understanding why we do what we do. The thinking is that if the ‘why’ becomes second nature in the aircraft, everything else kind of falls naturally.
“Another great part of the course is the integration piece,” he said. “You have the opportunity to work with almost every platform in the Air Force, getting to understand how they employ their weapon systems and how we all fit together into the big picture. You learn how to go into a battle space and be a smooth operating machine instead of a bunch of separate entities.”
Maxwell has been without a weapons instructor since 2010. Powell said he is excited to be able share what he learned in the WIC with his fellow Reserve Citizen Airmen at the Alabama base.
“The C-130 is such a unique airframe with incredible versatility,” he said. “It’s important to have the working knowledge of everything the aircraft can do to provide to our young crews before they head down-range. That’s just some of what the WIC provides.”
Franks said it can be difficult to find students to attend the WIC and made a plea to C-130 pilots and navigators to consider testing themselves at the Weapons Instructor Course.
“To be honest, we’re struggling to get applicants,” she said. “We need our strong future leaders in the C-130 world to come and earn their WIC patch. I know it’s hard for units to give up their chief of tactics or their strongest C-130 members for a five-month period of time, but we’re confident that units will see the value once they get the member back and see what they can pass on to all of their C-130 crews.”
For more information on the AATTC or the C-130H WIC, check out www.139aw.ang.af.mil.