It’s 7 a.m. and a thick fog envelops Leeuwarden Air Base in the Netherlands. A row of F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons lining the taxiway is barely visible in the mist. Slowly, the dim outlines of maintenance personnel and crew chiefs appear as they push tool carts and carry equipment toward their jets to prepare them for flight.
Colors, uniform details, ranks or defining squadron markings of the aircraft are hidden. All that can be seen are the shapes and figures of men and women working around their jets.
One of those figures is Senior Airman Dimitri Bush, an F-15 crew chief with the 122nd Fighter Squadron of the Louisiana Air National Guard’s 159th Fighter Wing. It’s his first time out of the country and his first deployment, where his unit is now the 122nd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron.
Bush and the rest of the 122nd EFS are participating in Frisian Flag 2017, one of the largest live-fly fighter exercises in Europe. The goal of the exercise is to strengthen interoperability between NATO nations, while honing combat skills in a modern threat environment, but it’s not the reason they are at Leeuwarden AB.
“You would never know under this haze there are two different countries working side by side preparing for the day,” Bush said. “And across the base, on the other side of the flightline, five other nations are getting ready as well.”
Approximately 300 Airmen and support equipment deployed with the aircraft as the 122nd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron from the Louisiana and Florida National Guard. They are deployed for three months of a six month Theater Security Package (TSP) as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve. They will spend six weeks in the Netherlands before moving on to Bulgaria. The TSP is a rotational deployment, which bolsters the combat airpower throughout U.S. European Command and NATO and shows a resolute commitment by the United States to the regional security and stability of Europe.
“We are all aware of what’s going on in the news and we all understand why we are here,” Bush said of the 122nd’s involvement of the TSP. “We are here as a show of force and to train with our allies. I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Bush is excited to be here and never thought he would get the chance to serve in the Air Force. He is three years removed from being asked to “politely leave” Louisiana State University as a freshman and member of the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps. He wanted to become a fighter pilot.
After a meeting with LSU’s commandant of cadets he was convinced to look into the Air National Guard to further pursue his commitment in wanting to serve in the Air Force.
“I was a typical freshman taking it all for granted,” Bush said. “I feel like I’ve been given a second chance to serve and mature in the Air Force and I still get to be around and work on fighter jets.”
Bush was unaware his squadron would be taking part in Frisian Flag exercise during their TSP deployment until they landed in the Netherlands, but he couldn’t wait to meet and interact with his counterparts from each country.
During Frisian Flag over 50 NATO aircraft from Belgium, France, Germany, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands joined the 122nd EFS in the skies daily over Eastern Europe. Together they executed defensive and offensive training scenarios from protecting ground targets, escorting and protecting high value assets, air interdiction missions, suppression of enemy air defenses and dynamic targeting with the assist of forward air controllers.
“When we have an opportunity to train with our coalition air forces everyone benefits,” said Maj. Gen. Jon Kelk, Air National Guard assistant to the commander, United States Air Forces in Europe Air Forces Africa.
Kelk explains that U.S. fighter squadrons bound to their home stations and flying combat training missions against their own pilots are deprived of the experience gained by flying with and against foreign pilots and aircraft.
The opportunity to fly with and against Typhoons, Mirages and Tornados provides operational familiarity between all forces participating in Frisian Flag, ensuring an efficient and effective joint response to a real world contingency.
As the sun rises higher and the fog burns away, pilots from the 322nd Royal Netherlands Air Force and the 122nd EFS head to their jets.
As the Dutch pilots pass the 122nd maintainers, one pilot has the Americans doing a double take.
Although Maj. Kevin Sweeney is wearing a Dutch flight suit and patches and preparing to climb into a Dutch F-16, his southern accent is a dead give away that he’s not from the Netherlands.
“It’s almost like I’m an undercover agent or better yet a chameleon. I’ve just changed colors,” Sweeney said.
For the last three years, Sweeney and his wife have called the Netherlands home. He’s participating in the Air Force Personnel Exchange Program serving as an exchange pilot with the 322nd RNLAF.
“It’s been an amazing assignment integrating into a foreign country in the airplane I learned to fly with in the Air Force and going to war alongside them,” Sweeney said. “That was the most rewarding for me.”
Sweeney understands, better than most, the benefits of his fellow Airmen training alongside his new Dutch family – on the flightline and in the air.
“It’s challenging and the lines do get blurred and I have to sometimes remind myself I’m not a Dutch officer,” Sweeney said. “The squadron has taken me in and made me feel at home. I’m proud to wear the Polly patch.”
The Polly patch is a reference to the African grey parrot mascot of the 322nd squadron, which is found in their crest, patches and painted on the tails of their F-16s. A living Polly Grey V mascot resides in the crew room of the 322nd squadron. She is 28 years old.
“Polly is a sergeant major in the Dutch air force. She’s the only one of us that promotes by age,” said Sgt. Barry (last name withheld for security), “Polly keeper” and F-16 crew chief with the 322nd. “She’s a good ice breaker in conversation for Frisian Flag.”
Barry has seen many people come and go each year with Frisian Flag since the exercise started in 1999. He looks forward to the exercise and seeing the flightline full of jets, but, most of all, he looks forward to making new friends.
“The F-16 is my life and I love the aircraft. It’s a great feeling getting your nails dirty working on the F-16, but this exercise is not about hardware, it’s about people,” Barry said. “Although, I can’t wait to see Polly on the tail of an F-35A Lightning II.”
In 2019, the RNLAF will receive the first wave of a planned 37 F-35As to replace the F-16s.
After the morning’s mission of F-15s and F-16s take off, Bush, some of his fellow crew chiefs and their Dutch counterparts make their way to the 322nd crew room for coffee and to meet Polly.
The planes may change, but the relationships built here will last, Barry said.