Desert Thunder VII

Thermal, CA October 2011: The Red Star Pilots’ Association conducted Desert Thunder VII at Jackie Cochran Airport (KTRM) in October. Desert Thunder is an annual training program for pilots who want to learn to fly tactical formation, fly low level navigation routes and attack mock targets. All participating pilots must be previously trained in flying formation and hold a Formation and Safety Team (FAST) qualification card. Many Red Star pilots are current and former military pilots but pilots with no military background are also members. This year’s blue force participants included over 20 aircraft consisting of Nanchang CJ-6s, YAK 50s, YAK 52s and T-34s. The scenarios flown included “low level” navigation in a hostile air environment, interdiction targets and close air support.

Fellow River Rat Darrell “Condor” Gary, Rachelle Gary and Duke “Maddawg” Molter organized the event and took care of the logistics necessary to make it happen including food and lodging as well as working with Tradition Aviation, the FBO that hosted the pilots and planes at Thermal. Condor also coordinated with Doug Matthews of Ramona to provide red air threats in the form of Doug’s P-51 Mustang and F4U Corsair as well as the CAF’s F4F Wildcat. Doug flew the P-51 while Pete Hunt flew the Corsair and Carter Teeters flew the Wildcat. Mike “Beav” Carter,  a former USAF F-16 Viper Pilot, lead the air-to-air training activities while Mo Allee, a former Marine F-18 Hornet pilot and ground Forward Air Controller (FAC) in Afghanistan organized the air-to-ground training.

Morning ROE Briefing

After a mass briefing on rules of engagement (ROE) Friday morning pilots formed flights of 2 or 3 airplanes and flew a “low level” route with a hard deck of 2000’ AGL to practice visual look out in tactical formation. Beav Carter flew his CJ-6 as red air for the warm up exercises on Friday and attacked the formations as they flew the assigned route to see if they could detect and react to the threat. There was no dog fighting, just an initial move of no more than 180 degrees of turn to defeat the threat if the flight saw the attack. Flights were scored on their ability to detect the threat and if the initial maneuver defeated the attack.

CJ-6 Preflight

Friday afternoon all flights flew a close air support (CAS) mission to an assigned holding point where they contacted the FAC for a target assignment . Mo Allee provided a heading and distance from the holding point to the target, described the target and then assigned a time-on-target (TOT) for bomb impact. The flight leader had to determine the time from the holding point to the target to arrive at the proper time. Mo scored the flights on their ability to get to the target on time as well as how far from the target their flour bomb hit.

Red Air P-51

Late Friday afternoon Doug Matthews arrived with the “real” red air for the graduation sorties to be flown on Saturday.  Pilots celebrated their successful day in traditional fashion that evening.

Red Air Coursair

Saturday started out with another mass briefing on ROE, mission assignments, weather and safety considerations. For the Saturday scenario each flight received a low level route to fly with a TOT at an airfield for a runway cut. During the low level, again flown above 2000’ AGL, the flights were vulnerable to attack by a CJ-6, the P-51, the Corsair and the Wildcat, each of which had an assigned point on the prescribed low level. In order to insure the “opportunity” to be attacked each flight had to announce as they passed each turn point on a common frequency. The red air pilots monitored the common frequency to ensure all participants could communicate if necessary for safety of flight. Seeing P-51s and Corsairs at air shows flying or on static display is great but, you cannot imagine how amazing it is to see one roll in on you for an attack. As before, flights were scored on their ability to detect and react to the air threat but, they were also scored on their ability to meet the TOT at the airfield that was given to them before they took off. No “bombs” were dropped on the airfield but, after that “attack”, each flight went to an assigned holding point and contacted the FAC for a CAS target assignment. Again, flights were given a target description, a heading, a distance and a TOT. It was not the same target everybody saw on Friday.

The organizing committee announced winners of the various competitions at the awards ceremony Saturday evening.

Ranger flight won the air-to-air competition. Skip Slyfield flew his YAK-50 as Viper 1. Mike Lynch flew Viper 2 in his CJ-6 with Rich Martindell as his Weapons Systems Operator (WSO) in the back seat.

Scorpion flight, two CJ-6s, won the air-to-ground competition. Rhino and Dawg flew Scorpion 1 while Gomez and Wxoff were on the wing in Scorpion 2.

In addition the “Bone” award went to the pilot who did the dumbest thing during the flying activities. What happened in Thermal, stays in Thermal but, unless you’re flying an F-15 it is hard to taxi with the chalks still in front of the wheels.

Sunday morning, prior to departure,  the “Night Crawler” award went to the person who distinguished himself based on undisclosed criteria during or after the awards ceremony.

The motto of Red Star and Desert Thunder is “Serious Fun”.

More information on the Red Star Pilots’ Association is available at


About Rich Martindell

Instrument flight instructor (CFII), rated airline transport pilot (ATP), former military instructor pilot in F-4s and F-15s. Aircraft accident investigator and flight safety consultant. FAA Safety Team Lead Representative.
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