A Belgian F-16AM Fighting Falcon “Viper” fighter takes flight during the morning exercise on June 21.
This year’s Maple Flag training exercise, at 4 Wing Air Base in Cold Lake, wrapped up Friday. More than 1,200 Canadian personnel participated in the Royal Canadian Air Forces largest and most complex training event of the year. They played host to squadrons from Australia, Belgium, United States, and a NATO contingent comprised of several nations for the 12 day exercise.
The goal of Maple Flag is to give pilots the most life-like air combat training they can, within a controlled environment. It tests several potential combat scenarios, so that pilots can learn the lessons here.
This dynamic training is amplified with at the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range (CLAWR). There are more targets on the range at CLAWR than other countries are accustomed to in large-force exercises (LFE), says Australian Wing Commander, Mick Grant.
“It’s a good exercise. It’s good airspace. There’s good target sets out there out on the ranges, so certainly back at home that’s a real level of focus for us,” said Commander Grant.
“We need to set up our ranges with a few more target sets. There are a lot – the most I’ve seen on a range before.”
Cold Lake offers a low density of airborne traffic, that allows for more targets and maneuverability with the aircraft, then many other training areas. While sailing at their usual heights, pilots can lower down to as low as 250 feet if needed, without any fear of interference. That is simply not doable in many parts of the world.
“It’s one of the easiest to use airspaces I’ve ever been to,” said Lieutenant Commander, Carl Ellsworth, U.S. Navy.
“A lot of times there is just so many restrictions, other people sharing the airspace, so it’s been very nice. Especially, when working with our points of contact here at Maple Flag to be able to use the airspace fairly freely.”
How a typical exercise works is the airspace is divided into red and blue crews. The red air acts as the aggressor; the blue air acts as friendly. The day-to-day weapon range depends on the blue side’s training focus, which is determined before the formation brief.
Then the fighter planes take off for an hour-and-a-half exercise, that ranges from command and control, air-to-air and air-to-surface tactics and weapons employment, and air-to-air refueling on a large scale.
The most important part for the visiting squadrons and personnel is the mass debrief afterward. This session gives feedback to the crews about their execution, and what can be improved upon. Most of the focus is on unexpected happenings.
“We’ll be sitting down with the detachments that are here looking for the happys and looking for the sads because part of the debrief process that was discussed there is that, that’s what we do on a daily basis when we’re flying. ” said Canadian Col. Paul Doyle.
Maple Flag breeds familiarity between pilots, that may prove useful later on. While it may seem unlikely that pilots run into each other again – it does happen.
Colonel Doyle was working with Belgian and Dutch pilots at Al Udeid Air Base, southwest of Qatar, that he’d flown with at Maple Flag in 2007.
“We had that connection. And I would argue it facilitated a lot of what we were doing for the coalition integration in there,” said Doyle.
Even if it’s just getting more familiar with different accents over the radios, there are benefits to this cooperative exercise.
“Obviously, being so isolated it’s usually Australians working with Australians at home, so any opportunity that we get to go ahead and operate – where we can get a lot of aircraft together is a brilliant opportunity,” said Australian Wing Commander, Mick Grant.
This year’s Maple Flag event was about half its usual length. In the past, the event was four weeks instead of two. The length and size of exercises are also dependent on the interest of other countries. Invitations for Maple Flag are sent out 12-16 months in advance.
At least nine types of aircraft were involved, including the Canadian CF-18 Hornet fighters, the American EA-18G Super Hornet “Growler” electronic warfare aircraft, and Australian F/A-18A Hornet fighter aircraft.
Approximately, 500,000 liters of fuel was used per day at Maple Flag 51, shipped from a refinery in Edmonton.
Maple Flag exercises began in Las Vegas in 1977 after it was discovered during the Vietnam War that 90 per cent of pilot losses happen in the first ten missions.