Nellis Flag Exercises – Aerial Pandemonium
If you’re going to hang out around the Nellis Complex area looking for mysterious lights in the sky, and you’re not on drugs, odds are you’re going to be disappointed. That is, unless you are out there during one of the “Flag” exercises. These are extremely realistic aerial wargames, intended to train our pilots in the finer points of not getting their butts blown out of the sky. But beyond that, they make for most spectacular entertainment for us earthbound types. There’s nothing like watching the sky rip open at night, with high priced military hardware whizzing by in all directions, spewing forth IR flares. You paid for it, so you might as well have some fun watching it.
There are several types of Flag exercises. The first, and most common, is Red Flag. In this scenario a Blue team (the friendlies) engage the Red team (the baddies). Pretty much anything goes, including live bombing and strafing. Obviously, there is no live ordinance used between aircraft.
Another type of Flag is the Green Flag. This is similar to a Red Flag, but there is an emphasis on electronic jamming, countermeasures and warfare.
Next, there is Canadian Maple Flag, which, strangely enough, revolves around training with our neighbors of the Great White North.
Finally, there is Coalition Flag. A Coalition Flag emphasizes Allied participation, so one is likely to see a lot of foreign aircraft and participants.
Each Flag runs 6 weeks. The 6 week period is further divided into 3 two week periods. Usually, new participants rotate in for each of these two week periods, so every two weeks during a Flag there is fresh meat.
In between (and sometimes during) Flag exercises are smaller programs called “Air Warrior” exercises. These are simply more modest and shorter versions of the full blown Flag exercises. They also include combined forces, but their simplicity and smaller scale enable more personnel to participate.
Typical Scenarios and Viewing Opportunities
In talking to some of the participants in the Flag exercises, it turns out there is a fairly common scenario played out. While this may not be the case every time, it’s a good bet things will run close to it.
In general, the defenders hang out in the area from east of Tonopah, south to almost Beatty. Pretty much the west side of the Nellis Range. The aggressors lurk far to the east around the Caliente area. It is the aggressors goal to sneak in to the area north of the Test Site and south of the Tonopah Test Range and blow the crap out of it. And these guys get paid to do this!
Anyway, the forces usually start mixing it up around Rachel. However, since Rachel is considered a “noise sensitive area” (hard to believe if you’ve ever been there), the real low level stuff takes place to the north. Queen City Summit on Hwy. 375 will often provide a pretty explosive show, as will Railroad Valley. The participants MUST avoid the airspace boxes around both Groom and the NTS, so you know they will be to the north of there.
Another aircraft viewing spot (although not necessarily in combat) is on Hwy. 93 between Hwy. 375 (Pahranagat Valley) and Caliente. There is a location on Hwy. 93, about 15 miles east of Hwy. 375, where the road goes through a pass called Pahroc Summit Pass. The boys in the air call this “Student Gap”, because often this is the point through which the aggressors stream to begin their assault.
Most aircraft end up returning to Nellis AFB, so an amazing assortment of hardware can be seen on the ramps there most any time during a Flag.
It’s hard to say just when during a Flag things get hot, but here are some tips. I’m told that after the Gulf War, night training increased considerably, as this seems to be the way we’ll fight in the future. So the after dark entertainment is often hopping, even though it’s sometime difficult to tell what’s going on. That doesn’t mean it’s quite during the day by any means. Weekends can also be quite good, but there is probably a little more activity on weekdays. The periods right at the start and end of each two week interval are likely going to be quiet, due to crew rotation, so you might want to avoid those.
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