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Busiest Air Force training range? It's at Fort Sill

Fort Sill's Falcon Range surpassed 3,000 sorties in each of the past two fiscal years to become the busiest training range in the Air Force, according to Mark Kessens, range operations officer.

"We're No. 1. We have been No. 1 in the reserve component for the last five years, but this year, we're actually the busiest range in the Air Force. We're No. 1 in usage, and almost triple the average for all the other ranges," he told reporters Tuesday.

"Our primary user is Sheppard Air Force Base AT-38s, the Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals students down there, both from the United States and NATO allies. For many of them, it is their first time they have ever been to a weapons range, and they learn about the procedures and processes of going to a weapons range, so that way they can fly the aircraft safely when they get their next assignment," Kessens said.

The range is vital to maintaining combat readiness, as it's a teaching tool for young fighter pilots as well as Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) and Joint Fires Observers (JFOs) learning to call in air strikes on a ground target.

"We get a lot of guys out here doing that stuff," Kessens said of the JTAC training. Some of these are with either 146th Air Support Operations Squadron of the Oklahoma Air National Guard or the schoolhouse it recently opened in Oklahoma City. Others are international, primarily from Singapore.

The JFOs are homegrown, Fort Sill soldiers and Marines who take the JFO Course offered by the Fires Center of Excellence

The U.S. Air Force built this 15,000-acre bombing range on the western edge of the installation in 1973 by recycling structures from a dismantled air base in the Philippines. Today it is operated by the 301st Fighter Wing, an Air Reserve Component at Naval Air Station, Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas.

"We are an Air Force tenant on Fort Sill. It belongs to the Army, even though the Air Force paid for it," Kessens said.

The bombing range has undergone two major overhauls since its inception, and it may well be funded for a third in the coming year. In the 1980s it changed from a simple range in a conventional circle for strafing targets, to a Vietnam-style target array. Starting in 2005 it began changing to realistic targets, some of them difficult to find, to replicate conditions that Kessens experienced while flying F-16s in Iraq.

Kessens said the observation tower was built in 1978: "We're fortunate that there's enough funding this year that it looks like we're going to get some new facilities out here. We're overdue for it."

Falcon Range has laser scoring systems that can calibrate targets to show pilots the exact distance and direction needed for maintenance crews to correct their systems. It even has moving targets  a couple of humvees that can be driven remotely. Another plus: it's the only range of its size that has explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) personnel on site.

Because of the EOD presence, Falcon Range can recycle training bombs in-house for $30 apiece instead of the usual $500. Painted blue to show they're inert, these line the fencelines to prevent soil erosion and keep the raccoons out.

Flying units that can use Falcon Range include B-52s from Barksdale AFB, La.; B-1Bs from Dyess AFB, Abilene, Texas; AC-130s and CV-22 Ospreys from Cannon AFB, N.M.;  MC-12s from the 137th Special Operations Wing at Will Rogers Air National Guard Base in Oklahoma City; F-16s from the 138th Fighter Wing, which is part of the Air National Guard in Tulsa, and four units in the Dallas-Fort Worth area: an MC-12 unit at Greenville and three fighter units based at Naval Air Station, Joint Reserve Base at Fort Worth.

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