THREE COAST AVIATION
Red Flag is a two-to-three week multinational exercise that is held at Nellis AFB three or four times per year focusing on air-to-air combat training. Started in 1975, more than twenty nine countries have participated in the exercise resulting in more than 500 000 military personnel and 150 000 aircrew receiving the highly specialized training meant to simulate the first ten combat missions during a conflict. 'Blue Air' is a combination of units deployed to Nellis featuring anything from fighters and bombers to electronic or reconnaissance and more recently space and cyber forces. They are opposed by the 'Red Air', usually lead by the extremely photogenic 64th Aggressor Squadron in their F-16s.
While I am fortunate to be in Las Vegas often and therefore have attended many Red Flag exercises, usually it is only for a day which means I am very dependant on a lot of variables like weather, flying schedule and runway utilization. Sometimes it works well and I can get most of the participating aircraft in the minimal time I have. Other times, such as when the Israeli or Columbian Air Forces participate, I am left with very few pictures of the aircraft I was hoping to capture.
It was a pleasure to be back at Nellis AFB for Red Flag 22-2, almost exactly two years since 20-2 was shortened due to the start of the Covid Pandemic. Unfortunately, another global event, the invasion of Ukraine, threatened to cancel this exercise and caused multiple participating squadrons to cancel. Fortunately, the highly anticipated F-15SAs from Saudi Arabia were able to attend along with American based units flying F-16s, B-1Bs, F-15Es and EA-18Gs. While the international flavour is always welcome, it's always wonderful to get some sharp images of the local 64th Aggressor jets flexing off Runway 03L then landing with a "right for the right". A small flag is still a good flag!
I will never forget the two days I spent outside Nellis during Red Flag 20-2. March 11 started out poorly as my flight was delayed two hours and resulted in me missing the aircraft departures. Then, I figured I would position myself between gates 5 and 6 for the arriving aircraft as that seems to be where the international participants typically turn. In typical frustrating Nellis fashion, all of the European aircraft turned inside my location or went left for Runway 21L. I was able to salvage the day however by chasing the B-52s and being in perfect position when they flew the pattern as opposed to landing after a straight-in approach. My luck continued when the locally based aircraft departed in beautiful evening light after the exercise participants had landed but those pictures will eventually be loaded in the Nellis Spotting gallery.
Then, March 12, North America shutdown. The miserable weather was joined by the cancellation of air shows in El Centro and Yuma meaning my week long trip was shortened to a day and a half. The remaining week of 20-2 was then cancelled after a member of one of the visiting military units contracted the virus. However, the B-52 pictures I took on March 11 are my favourite images of the ageless bomber so I look at this event with fond memories instead of focusing on what could have been.
On January 31 everything seemed to work in my favour resulting in some of the nicest pictures I've taken of Red Flag participants in years. Just about every aircraft that launched executed a FLEX departure allowing some great topside angles even in the harsh winter light. There was a lovely Super Hornet celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Australia's Fighting First while the famous 617 Dambusters squadron was in attendance from the Royal Air Force. Both B-1s made it into the air and their pilots seemed more interested in flying them like fighters as opposed to large bombers leading to wing down images as they headed to the training range and then even nicer images when they flew tight patterns on return to Nellis.
For a more detailed review of this exercise please enjoy my article at Checksix - the military aviation online magazine. https://www.checksix.de/review/exercises/red-flag-2020/
On January 28, 2019, I spent the day on Las Vegas Blvd N watching the participants in Red Flag 19-1. Unfortunately, I battled more than the harsh winter light that day as the sky clouded over after the departures which made photographing the arrivals unenjoyable. Luckily, while the sky was still blue I was treated to Flex departures from more than just the local Aggressors as Hickam Raptors, Shaw Vipers and Lemoore Super Hornets dropped a wing on their way to the range.