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Desert erupts with firepower as F-16s train

Bombs and bullets fly as fighter wing hones its skills

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EAGLE RANGE, Box Elder County — From the catwalk around the control tower, 65 feet above the sere brown desert, the first two F-16s are so distant that they are only specks in the bright blue sky.

They slice through the air swiftly, one much higher than the other, making a bombing run on a target a few hundred yards from the tower. As they approach, an F-16 fires flares that blaze with a silver light. One, two, three, four separate flares arch away from the plane, trailing smoke.

As the fighter approaches the set of drums stationed in the sagebrush, its roar is substantial, even through protective earplugs.

Suddenly a bright orange flash erupts in the desert beside the target as the dummy bomb hits. Immediately a puff of dark and white dust boils up, billowing and rising. By then the F-16 is streaking away, curving high into the sky for another run.

Four planes of the 419th Fighter Wing, an Air Force Reserve unit stationed at Hill Air Force Base, practiced bombing and strafing Thursday at this distant site west of the Great Salt Lake, which is part of the Utah Test and Training Range. Officers of the 419th invited local newspaper and television coverage during a "media day" at the range. They first briefed reporters and photographers at the base, showing maintenance and training areas, then took them by Blackhawk helicopter to Eagle Range.

Eagle Range is "where we practice our most basic bombing," says Major J.D. Erwin, one of the 419th F-16 pilots who accompanied the group.

The nearest inhabited site is a bleak cluster of buildings a few miles away misnamed Oasis, where some Hill military and civilian personnel stay. However, some commute from towns like Grantsville, Tooele County.

Beside the control tower of Eagle Range are a few buildings with corrugated roofs painted with giant red and white blocks, plus a vehicle park with a fuel tanker and other trucks. On the side of the tower away from the bombing target, two Air Force men are talking, one sitting on a Dumpster, the other standing. They pay little attention to the bombing runs.

But after each of the four fighters makes four passes, the flights shift to the other side. Now the two men below are watching intently as the action is about to become exciting indeed.

An F-16 streaks toward the tower, diving to within 90 feet of the ground, looming closer and closer. "BRRRRUUUPPP!" blasts the Gattling gun in its left wing. At the target, a wave of dust erupts from the desert where the .20-mm. bullets hit.

Repeatedly the F-16s dive, spraying bullets, banking and slicing through the air, cutting away with a tremendous, exhilarating roar.

As a finale, the four jets fly past in formation. Through binoculars, they look like sleek dolphins that cut through the air at a graceful tilt. Then they are gone, and the group files into the control tower.

"The closest they can get down to is 75 feet, and there were some that were down to right about 80, 90 feet," says Dot Ellis, Grantsville. A civilian range control specialist, she commutes 62 miles each way, four days a week, to work in the tower. Ellis has been doing that for 14 years.

Does it still seem exciting to watch the planes? "Oh yes, I love this job!" she exclaims.

On the tower's double-thick glass panes are lines representing altitude. All you have to do, she says, is line up one of the lines with the horizon and then you can calculate how far off the ground the jet is.

Video cameras mounted on the windows record each run. Another set of cameras a mile away watches the same demonstration. As soon as a run happens, she said, "the video is microwaved to Dugway."

At Dugway Proving Ground, computers analyze the images and calculate how close the pilot came to the target. Between the time the bombs drop and the time the results are relayed back, only 4 seconds elapse.

Still, Ellis said, the results aren't quite as accurate as human spotters were before computers were installed. "We used to have a plus-or-minus error of 4 meters," she said. The computers' allowable error is 10 meters.

Erwin said pilots must pay careful attention to altitude, dive angles and air speeds. "And then once we do all that dance, that doesn't mean anything unless we get the bombs on the target."

Flares fired by the aircraft are designed to decoy enemy heat-seeking missiles, he explains. Pilots need to certify their skill through such tests, and Erwin said he liked what he saw Thursday. "They did quite well, actually, looking at their scores."

E-MAIL: bau@desnews.com