My trip began in Alabama where the thick-hot temperature was exaggerated by the asphalt on the runway as we boarded a C-17 packed with Aerospace Ground Equipment and Engine shop supplies. We sat huddled around the travel bins and a spare F-16 engine for the flight to Mirgorod via Maine. Fifteen hours after we started, the crew chief on the C-17 announced, “Everyone take your seats we are about to land.”
After our plane bounced down a beaten tar and concrete runway, 65 of us began processing through customs, located in a pre-Cold War tent located at the edge of the runway. Suffering from jet lag and pure exhaustion, our first introduction to Ukraine was working our way down a line, being interviewed by customs. “How much dollars do you have? Do you have any drugs or weapons?” spoken to us in Ukrainian and then echoed by a translator. Little did I realize that I would later call that translator my friend.
A massive yellow bus delivered us to the place we would call home for the next 17 days. ‘Resort’ was used to describe the hotel, but it more closely resembled a modest college dorm: two twin beds and a small refrigerator in the corner. Later the outlet that powered the refrigerator would be capitalized to run a small oscillating fan to generate a modest breeze of relief as Mirgorod reached 97 degrees.
Once the opening ceremonies were completed, our pilots walked out to their jets. The mighty Vipers sat juxtaposed against the Ukraine landscape and the SU-27s and MiG-29s perched on the other end of the ramp. This was the first time an operational U.S. fighter unit was on the ground in Ukraine…the first time…ever.
While we were here, our jets operated as both blue- and red-air, serving as the hi-jacked aircraft as well as the interceptors, clearing the airspace from any airborne threats over both Ukraine and Poland. These training sorties were designed to prepare the Ukrainian and Polish Air Forces to defend their airspace during EUROCup 2012, one of the single largest sporting events in all of Europe to be held just a few miles from Mirgorod in Kiev, the capital.
During the exercise our pilots flew with MiG-29, SU-27, and Polish F-16 fighter jets. This great combination of legendary aircraft was spectacular to watch. As the ramp rumbled with the power of turbine engines and the raw thrust of the Soviet made MiG-29 echoed all around, I realized how lucky I was to be here at this moment in time. I was among the first Airmen to stand ten feet from what used to be our enemy, but was now our ally in providing air defense.
Being able to see these aircraft take off together and fly missions was amazing. These pilots trained for many years to fight against each other, but were now coming together to share their knowledge to achieve a common goal. I watched one of our pilots light-up as he strapped in a MiG-29 knowing he was going to share in the linage of this great military flying force, not as an enemy, but as a guest on a guided tour of the Ukrainian country side, flying in what was once an adversarial aircraft. I turned my head 60 degrees to the left and watched the Mirgorod Air Base Wing Commander strap in an F-16 with Alabama proudly painted on its red tail…the Mirgorod Air Base Commander flying in our Tuskegee bird! I was so proud to be part of that historical moment.
Minutes later a four ship of F-16s and MiG-29s crackled through the airspace above the runway, peeling off one at a time, precisely as if they had trained together for years. Watching these aircraft was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; how much the world has changed in just one generation. I am super excited to see what becomes of our time spent here during Safe Skies 2011.
Witnessing this fantastic air show from the runway, I was blown away by the power of these aircraft. It proved that these fighters, despite their age, are extremely capable and any force flying them would make a supreme ally.
I had a role to play, along with my 139 fellow airmen, in making SAFE SKIES 2011 a complete success. In total, more than 40 intercept engagements occurred, providing the Ukrainian and Polish Air Forces the opportunity to better protect their skies. I understand firsthand the power of the State Partnership Program and how relationships forged via the program can last forever.
Senior Airman Stephen Butler