APRIL 6, 2016, DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. (AFNS) – They are hot, bright and a visual spectacle. But they are not your run-of-the-mill fireworks being shot off in celebration. Flares used by pilots are life-saving emergency countermeasures that keep Dover Air Force Base aircraft in the skies delivering airlift cargo to the warfighter.
Flares play a pivotal role keeping Dover’s C-5M Super Galaxies and C-17A Globemaster IIIs from being shot down while conducting combat operations downrange. Flares protect aircraft by forcing infrared threats, such as heat-seeking, surface-to-air or air-to-air missiles, to lock onto their heat signatures rather than the aircraft’s engine.
Each aircraft is loaded with various types of flares depending on mission, location and requirements. Flares are either punched out automatically by the aircraft’s electronic countermeasure systems or they can be manually jettisoned by aircraft pilots. But flares go through various stages before meeting their blistering end.
Staff Sgt. John Judy, a 436th Maintenance Squadron munitions inspector, oversees flare operations within the ammo section at Dover AFB. Judy, along with other ammo Airmen, build flare sets specific to each aircraft and mission.
“Part of our mission is to keep the C-5 and C-17 aircraft replenished with good flares,” Judy said. “That way when they fly into combat, they have something to defend themselves with.”
After the flare sets are assembled, strict protocols are taken to deliver the flares to the flightline where they are uploaded onto the aircraft by trained Airmen from the 436th and 736th Aircraft Maintenance Squadrons. It takes at least three qualified personnel to conduct flare uploading or downloading operations, two personnel handling the flares and one safety observer.
Staff Sgt. Matthew Calvo, a 736th AMXS communication, countermeasure and navigation system craftsman, ensures that flares are properly and safely loaded onto C-17s. Calvo also ensures that the aircraft’s countermeasure dispensing system is functioning properly so flares are guaranteed to dispense from the aircraft when needed.
“The purpose of the countermeasure dispensing system is to defeat infrared threats,” Calvo said. “The threats are defeated by manually punching out flares or if the system is interfaced with an active electronic countermeasure system, such as the missile warning system or infrared countermeasure system, that system would then punch out flares automatically according to the threat.”
Both C-17 and C-5 onboard computers are uploaded with specific mission data that tell the computer what kind of threats the aircraft is likely to face based on the location of the mission. If the aircraft comes under fire, the computer registers the threat and based off of factors such as the threat’s temperature and speed, the aircraft will automatically dispense the appropriate flares that have the best chance of defeating that specific threat.
Most flares that are dispensed from aircraft at Dover AFB are from controlled training missions. Aircrews from the 9th and 3rd Airlift Squadrons routinely fly over the Bollen Live-Fire Range Complex on Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, where simulated surface-to-air missiles, or smokey SAMs, are fired at the aircraft to test the aircraft’s countermeasure systems.
First Lt. Taylor Warren, a 3rd AS pilot, recently flew her first training mission over Bollen Range. Warren and other aircrew members made eight passes through the range, encountering smokey SAM threats with each pass.
“They were shooting different things at us from different sides of the aircraft,” Warren said. “We had some front aspect shots, we had some shots from the three-to-nine line and even some rear aspect shots. So we got to see the different ways the jet’s defensive systems reacted to those threats.”
As the smokey SAMs were shot at the Dover C-17, the countermeasure system responded by punching out the most likely flare to defeat the threat, allowing the pilots to focus on threat and escape maneuvers. Warren said the training has increased her confidence in her abilities to recognize and respond to threats in an efficient, timely manner.
“The most important thing I’ve learned as a new co-pilot is what the flares actually sound like when they go off,” Warren said. “Now I will know if I heard them and I don’t need to hit the button or I didn’t hear them and we are getting a missile launch warning that I need to punch the button myself.”
Some Dover pilots have had flares punch out from their aircraft while in a combat theater.
Last year, 1st Lt. Tristin Everett, a 9th AS pilot, was the acting co-pilot of a C-5M taking off from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, when flares suddenly shot out from the aircraft.
“The takeoff seemed pretty normal,” Everett said. “After about 1,000 or 1,500 feet or so, we started making our turn and then we heard this loud thud. It was just like a kick in the pants and the flares started dispensing.”
Although there was never a clear confirmation that the aircraft actually came under fire, Everett said he was thankful the flares did their job at neutralizing any potential threat.
“It was one of those moments you can’t forget and it makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck,” Everett said. “I am definitely thankful for the maintenance and everything that goes into keeping the aircraft and defense systems working like it should.”
For the maintainers at Dover AFB, Airmen know why their job of uploading flares is crucial in saving lives.
“Everything we do out here on the flightline we take pride in,” Calvo said. “It definitely feels good when you work with flares because you know the aircraft, aircrew and everything onboard is safe. We are helping these aircraft be safer when they are down range performing the mission and that’s something we take a lot of pride in.”