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DACIAN VIPER

Câmpia Turzii: West meets East above Transylvania

The citizens of Câmpia Turzii in Romania have been hearing a different sound in the air in the last couple of months. Used as they are of hearing the Turmansky R-13 jet engine of the MiG-21; these days the sky is also filled with the sound of the General Electric F110-GE-100: the F-16’s are here!
Going into its fifth year, operation Atlantic Resolve saw the 457th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron of the 301st Fighter Wing, Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC), deploy to Romania in May 2019. Dino van Doorn, Bas Stubert and Hans van der Wilt witnessed the action from 71st Air Base, Câmpia Turzii.

Theater Security Package

Called a Theater Security Package, US forces have been deploying units to Europe in response to the 2014 events in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine that destabilized the entire region. The US Air Force Theater Security Packages or TSP’s started in 2015 when the USAF first deployed fighter and tanker unit throughout the US European Command area of responsibility. These units participated in multiple readiness exercises alongside NATO allies and partner to strengthen interoperability and to demonstrate US commitment to the security and stability of Europe.

Recently two US Air Force TSP’s were deployed toEurope, the 457th EFS in Romania flying F-16’s and two squadrons from Hill AFB operating the F-35 in Germany. The 457th EFS, normally based at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Forth Worth (the former Carswell Air Force Base) in Texas, deployed twelve F-16C++ enhanced Block 30 Fighting Falcons to Romania as part of TSP 19.1. Main objectives for their TSP were three-folded: to deter any regional aggression; strengthening NATO alliances and further building the local relationship with the Romanian host.

457th EFS at Câmpia Turzii

The 301st Fighter Wing is manned according to the Total Force concept. Through the Air Force Reserve Command Associate Program reserve crews and active duty crews are combined, sharing a single set of aircraft and share the staffing of the unit. The 301st FW is an active associate unit, meaning that the Air Force Reserve owns the aircraft while the active duty Regular Air Force embeds a squadron that provides aircrews, aircraft maintenance and support personnel who share the responsibility of maintaining and flying the AFRC aircraft. The 457th EFS is thus augmented with the personnel of the active duty 355th Fighter Squadron that is embedded within the 301st FW.

When asked about the preparations for the deployment Lieutenant Colonel Paul “Thorny” Batich, commanding officer of the 457th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron explains: “our path here is very similar to any other deployment. As part of a pre-deployment training, the unit went to Red Flag Alaska at the end of last summer and came up with a training program for the pilots to get them ready for the mission-sets that we are going to be doing”.

The deployment of the 457th FS started on April 26, when 16 F-16s flew from their home base NAS JRB Forth Worth to Pease ANGB, situated at the East Coast of the USA. From here, twelve F-16’s continued their journey on April 29 towards Spangdahlem AB in Germany for another stopover. During their Atlantic crossing, they were supported by two KC-10A Extender tanker aircraft. On May 2 they made the final flight to Câmpia Turzii, which became their temporarily home until early August when the unit deployed back home.

Logistical preparations for the deployment to Câmpia Turzii started more than three months prior to the actual deployment. As Captain Matthew Poe, maintenance Officer In Charge explains: “in March we came out for our site survey to just check out the airfield because it is a little non-standard for an Air Force unit to go to a place that doesn’t have a lot of US Air Force assets or set up. It is very vital for us to come out and see where we would be operating and what limiting factors we would have before getting here.”

An operating support team from the 52nd FW out of Spangdahlem AB (stationed in Germany and, like the 457th EFS, operating the F-16) came along to make sure the F-16’s were able to perform their task within regulations while taking the aspects of the local airport into consideration. Having limited supplies available on the small airfield of Câmpia Turzii, most of the logistics (e.g. equipment and spare parts) was supplied by the 52nd FW as well.

Unlike the pilots, the maintenance crew has not been swapped; but stayed for the entire duration of the deployment. Captain Poe: ”for maintainers it’s difficult to swap out a lot of history and processes of the jets they worked upon. A completely new crew to come in and try to relearn those processes with much of the knowledge that hasn’t been really shared very well, simply isn’t effective”.

Being an Air Reserve unit, the crew comprised of a mix of active duty personnel as well as traditional reservist that are civilians back home.

In Romania, the deployed airmen were conducting tactical training with their Romanian counterparts in exercise Dacian Viper 2019. Training was not limited to flying missions with the Romanian Air Forces upgraded MiG-21’s called LanceRs, US and Romanian tactical air controllers also got a change to work with the deployed F-16’s. One of the 457th pilots, Captain “Chestr” Chiseck, told us: “We’re flying two missions a day on average. The kind of mission is not that different from the missions flown back home, but obviously the terrain, size of airspace and the partners are different. I’ve flown ground support missions with US air controllers also deployed to Europe and we’re also training with the Romanians”.

However, Dacian Viper was not the only exercise the 457th EFS has conducted whilst in Romania. Exercises Astral Knight, Saber Guardian, Swift Response and Decisive Strike have also seen involvement of the 457th EFS. On top of that, the Italian Air Force F-2000A Typhoons that simultaneously deployed to Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base near Constanta at the Black Sea coast provided welcome sparring partners for the 457th EFS pilots. Four F-2000A’s from different Italian Air Force units are based at Mihail Kogălniceanu to boost the air policing capacity in the region, much like the USAF TSP’s. Captain Chiseck on flying an air-policing mission with the Typhoons: “I’m looking over my shoulder and there is that big delta wing fighter joining on me. He was my flight lead and the Italians are professional fliers. We each got a taste of what the other pilot and aircraft could do. I’d never seen a Eurofighter Typhoon before, very maneuverable aircraft.”

MiG-21 at Câmpia Turzii

Being an ageing former East-bloc workhorse, the MiG-21 has become a rare sighting in Europe these days. However, it is foreseen that the MiG will be around for at least another five years. When speaking to the Deputy Squadron Commander of Escadrilla 711, Comandor Călin Hulea (call sign “Coolio”): “it depends on how quickly we succeed in buying additional F-16’s. At the moment, the factory in Bacau (Aerostar SA) has sufficient spare-parts to do the higher complexity maintenance and keep them going for some years to come. Although the number of operational aircraft are getting lower, we still are able to comply with the level of standards that has been agreed upon with NATO, allowing for sufficient flying-hours for our pilots”.

The latest class of MiG-21 students graduated in 2018 and according to Comandor Hulea this will most like be the last one to fly the MiG-21. Future students will join the current F-16 unit at Fetesti airbase when graduated from the Air Force Academy. Until recently, the conversion to the MiG-21 took place at Bacau, but this task is now performed “in-house” by instructors of Escadrilla 711.

Currently the main task of the MiG-21’s at Câmpia Turzii is Air Policing. For this purpose, a number of aircraft are on 24-hour QRA. Besides Air Policing, also air-to-ground is being practiced at ranges in close proximity of the base. For this, Escadrilla 711 uses MiG-21’s upgraded to the LanceR C

When talking about the experiences with 457th EFS, Comandor Hulea comments: “like us, they also do Air-to-Air and Air-to-Ground missions. During their stay, we have been doing multiple missions, focusing on Air-to-Air only; doing tactical intercepts and BMF (Basic Fighter Manoeuvres). We have also been playing the ‘Red Role’ in Defensive counter air missions with them. Working with these guys have been a great experience. The basic of our approach for planning and doing the missions is based on NATO standards, which we have adopted ever since we joined NATO. This has proven to be successful in our cooperation with the various TPS-units that have visit Câmpia so far”.

With the help of the Americans, many improvements have been made on the infrastructure of the base in recent years. As such, Câmpia Turzii has become an invaluable NATO asset in strengthening the relationship with the Romanian Air Force and the stability and security in the region.

SQUADRONS

Câmpia Turzii

The 457th EFS operated from 71st Air Base, Câmpia Turzii near the city of Cluj-Napoca in the hart of the Transylvania region of Romania. The airfield of Câmpia Turzii was constructed between 1952 and 1953 and first housed Ilyushin Il-10 Beast ground attack aircraft. Since then the base has grown, air defense units and even a paratrooper regiment were added to the base. Câmpia Turzii currently houses Escadrilla 711 operating LanceR B and C aircraft, upgraded MiG-21 Fishbeds and Escadrilla 713 flying the IAR-330 Puma helicopters.

Escadrilla 711

Romania received its first MiG-21’s in 1962 with the arrival of twelve MiG-21F-13’s. Another twelve MiG-21F-13’s arrived a year later, followed by 38 MiG-21PF’s, seven MiG-21U400/600 trainers, 56 MiG-21PFM’s, twelve MiG-21R’s, 68 MiG-21M’s, eleven MiG-21US trainers, 74 MiG-21MF/MF-75’s and 32 MiG-21UM trainers, totaling 322 MiG-21 aircraft.

With the end of the Warsaw Pact deliveries of spare parts etc. grinded to a halt as in 1993 Russia no longer offered spare parts for Romanian MiG-21’s and MiG-29’s. This prompted the search for an alternative source of spare parts, combined with upgrading the MiG-21MF/MF-75’s built in the 1970’s. Of these, 111 were modernized into LanceR aircraft with upgrades incorporating Western avionics provided by Elbit Systems including the Elta EL/M-2032 air combat radar for the LanceR C.  71 MiG-21MF/MF-75’s were converted to the LanceR A configuration, optimized for ground attack and able to use precision guided munitions. Fourteen MiG-21UM’s were converted to the Lancer B configuration and used for training. A further 26 MiG-21MF and MF-75’s were converted to LanceR C configuration for air superiority missions. The work was carried out by Israeli company Elbit Systems and Romanian company Aero Star SA between 1995 and 2002. The LanceRs are unique in the way that they can use both Western and Eastern Bloc weaponry such as the Soviet R-60M (AA-8 Aphid) and R-73 (AA-11 Archer), the French R.550 Magic 2 and Israeli Python III air-to-air missiles. Of these 111 LanceRs, some 30 or so are operational at this time. All LanceR A’s have been withdrawn, with only the LanceR B and LanceR C still operational.

Recently LanceRs were flown from Câmpia Turzii and Fetesti airfields. The Fetesti LanceRs have already been replaced by twelve former Portuguese Air Force F-16AM/BM Fighting Falcons. Their LanceRs have been redeployed to Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base. This leaves Escadrilla 711 as one of the last units flying the LanceR in the Romanian Air Force. Its aircraft carry the markings of the 71st Air Base, a coat of arms consisting of a blue shield with seven white towers superimposed, referring to the Germanic name Siebenbürgen (Seven castles) of the region. These days the region of Siebenbürgen is more commonly known as Transylvania. It is expected that the Câmpia Turzii LanceRs will also be replaced by F-16’s, either new or second-hand. The 457th EFS deployment gave the current LanceR aircrews an opportunity to become acquainted with the Fighting Falcon before they will receive their own in the coming years.

Escadrilla 713

The second RoAF unit at Câmpia Turzii is Escadrilla 713 operating the IAR.330 Puma helicopter. Although Romania was a Warsaw Pact and COMECON member it decided to license-build the Aérospatiale SA.330 Puma instead of buying the more common Mil Mi-8 Hip helicopter from the Soviet Union. After purchasing the license on July 30 1974, the first Romanian-built helicopter was flown on October 22, 1975 under de designation IAR.330L. Industria Aeronautică Română (IAR) built 104 IAR.330’s for the Romanian military.

Of these, several were modified in the 1990s in cooperation with Elbit Systems. Two contracts were signed, one in 1995 to upgrade 25 IAR.330L’s to Sistem Optronic de Cercetareși Anti-Tanc (SOCAT) gunship standard and the second to upgrade twelve IAR.330L’s to IAR.330M standard with the same avionics but lacking the SOCAT’s armament and targeting equipment. IAR flew the first IAR.330 SOCAT on May 26 1998 and deliveries continued until 2005. From 2005 to 2008, the IAR.330M’s were upgraded and redelivered by IAR to the Romanian Air Force. Escadrilla 713 flies a mix of IAR.330 SOCAT and M versions.

Like Escadrilla 711, Escadrilla 713 aircraft are adorned with the same coat of arms, the blue shield with seven white towers superimposed identifying it as a 71st Air Base Câmpia Turzii based unit.







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