The Race to beat the Pilots

It was a 3 1/2 hour drive to our destination. Our plan was to leave at 7 a.m. – it was 7:15 a.m. by the time we were loaded and on our way.

Uh oh – the GPS previously lied. All of a sudden it showed it as being a 4-hour drive. I had completely forgotten about the fact that we’d hit Miami traffic, slowing us down by half an hour. I used to live down here, how could I forget to calculate traffic?

Stop-and-go, stop-and-go, stop-and-go – it took a bit but eventually we were on our way up Highway 27 to the Avon Park Air Force Range in Avon Park, Florida, to capture our jets in an air-to-ground combat competition. The good-ole “turkey shoot” as they called it, was an opportunity for the total force integration units across the United States to get to know each other with some friendly competition.

The bad news – we hadn’t been able to contact anyone at the range before we departed. The good news – we got a call back while on our ride up there.

As we pulled through the gate, we passed a prison and continued to drive until we saw a little brown building where our escort to the range, Matt, was waiting. He was ready to leave the minute we got there. If we didn’t get out to the shooting area before the jets did, we wouldn’t be able to get close enough for photo and video coverage.

My heart beat quickly as Matt took us down the gravel roads. The jets had departed on time and it would only take them 20-minutes to get to us. (yes, you read that right – our 4-hour drive only took them 20-minutes!)

We arrived in the knick of time! We climbed up the 3-story staircase and got our cameras ready for the action. They did a quick pass overhead to make sure they could see us, before starting up their weapons systems.

That’s when our jobs got fun – there’s nothing that comes close to the peace you feel inside as you watch your pilots hit their targets. Knowing they can protect me from what feels like just a few feet away is extremely reassuring! Real-world training like this at an unfamiliar location improves our pilot’s mission readiness. It gives them the edge they need to be combat ready. If called upon one thing is for sure – our pilots are well-trained, experienced, and have proved to be an effective fighting force that can operate wherever they are needed.

Here are some photos and video coverage from our eventful day!


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About Tech. Sgt. Andrea F. Rhode

Tech. Sgt. Andrea F. Rhode is a photojournalist for the 115th Fighter Wing in Madison, Wisconsin.