Like the deafening whir of cicadas in the pines or the thumping croaks of hundreds of river-bottom toads, the thunderous rumble of jet engines is just a part of the sound of driving through Jefferson County.
Although the jets and the orange flares that streak and fall from them are less common than lightning bugs, the residents who live under them have grown accustomed to their presence.
Just days after two F-16 fighter jets collided over Jefferson County, others had returned. Before that incident, it was enough for most residents to accept that the pilots were training. They watched the jets swoop across the sky and shared off-hand guesses about what exactly it was they were practicing.
Before that collision, Col. Nicholas Gentile Jr., the commander of the 169th Fighter Wing of the South Carolina Air National Guard, had seen Jefferson County’s farmland and river bottoms mostly from above.
He supposes that during the past 17 years he has flown about 500 training missions in the Bulldog Military Operating Area, which stretches across Jefferson and Burke counties. Louisville sits nearly square in the middle of it.
“That’s one of our primary four airspaces, so I’m there every week in one capacity or another,” Gentile said. “And if I’m not there, all the guys in my unit are.”
According to a spokesman for the FAA, the Bulldog MOA airspace is actually made up of five MOAs with their own restrictions, but most of the area is available for military training flights from 7 a.m. to midnight daily. The primary area used by Gentile’s base is about 60 miles square, starting 15 or 20 miles west of Augusta. They run training missions in much of the region from 500 feet above the ground up to 27,000 feet.
“By the time you meet one another and are ready to have a simulated engagement, it’s probably about a 40- to 45-mile area,” Gentile said. “For us, it’s the best airspace next to being over water.”
The F-16s that fly out of McEntire Joint National Guard Base and Shaw Air Force Base can reach speeds in excess of 1,400 mph, or twice the speed of sound.
Though they practice air-to-air maneuvers over Jefferson County, Gentile said the main value of the airspace is in its lower-altitude availability.
“What we primarily use that airspace for is two things: It’s air to ground, practicing dropping simulated munitions like attacking targets, and electronic warfare,” he said. “That’s the mission we were particularly supporting the night of the accident – electronic warfare.”
He explained that they have emitters that look like large radar dishes, set up on land they lease. A mobile emitter is towed by a truck, with the call sign Roadrunner, that parks in fields and parking lots.
“Think of it as a football game,” he said. “We’re going to call a play, and the guys that are working against us, the trainers on the ground, are calling a play, right? So they are going to turn on at certain times and turn off at certain times. They are going to try to entice us to come closer so they can shoot at us. And that goes on.
“Meanwhile, we’re trying to execute our plan against that defense, if you want to call it that. Because we are going in with our forces to attack a target. They are defending that target. So we’ll go find a way in while they try to shoot at us and engage us, and we will try to suppress and prevent them from attacking the U.S. forces.
That’s the simulation, and that goes on every day out there.”
In addition to the Air National Guard out of McEntire, also using the aispace are Shaw (near Sumter, S.C.), Seymore Johnson Air Force Base (in Goldsboro, N.C.), Moody Air Force Base (in Valdosta, Ga.) and Marines out of Beaufort, S.C.
“It’s good that we have areas we can simulate attacking,” Gentile said.
The flares that people see from the ground are used as decoys to lure heat-seeking missiles that could be simulated from another plane or from the ground, away from the jet itself.
In some training missions, Gentile said, his pilots have to come in and attack a target, and airplanes on the other side of the airspace try to keep them from getting to that target.
“The goal line in this case is getting a successful laser-guided bomb or GPS bomb onto a target,” he said. “Of course, we aren’t really dropping anything, but we are simulating all of that and we are able to use the laser pods in our jets to put something on target or put a cross-hair on a target, and then we will track it for a certain amount of time and say that was a successful hit.”
The mission starts the day before, when they pick out targets in the Jefferson County area.
Bulldog is one of the best areas to prepare his pilots for close air support or direct support of Army ground forces, Gentile said. They practice using radios to guide the air support to specific targets.
Some Army personnel drive around in vans, playing what Gentile called Op-4, or the opposing force.
“We’ve had guys go out and simulate digging next to the road. They’ll actually dig next to the road as if they were planting an IED, and we try to find them,” Gentile said. “All that is going on right there in Jefferson County. People have probably driven by government vans wondering why dudes are digging. …
“They’ll also see the fighters come low when the fighters are practicing our strafe. We are practicing using our gun on the F-16 to attack moving targets.”
Many of the pilots now training in Bulldog will be deploying within the month, he said.
“For us, this is the best airspace we can hope for for air to ground, and we want to preserve it and make sure we are taking care of everyone,” Gentile said. “We avoid Louisville by 1,500 feet. We have a restricted area around that airport and that town so that we don’t go too loud or too low.
“The support from Jefferson County has been amazing. We’ve had people come up and bring their kids and tell us they’ve been watching us for years … getting to talk to people about what we do and why we do it, and
that’s been one of the positives out of this tough experience.”