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Isle-based pilots take to the sky againt IS

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    An F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft departed for a late-afternoon sortie from a runway at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia last month.

While much of Hawaii rings in the new year with some relaxation today, F-22 Raptor pilots and maintenance crews from the Hawaii Air National Guard and active duty Air Force continue to take the fight to the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

There was some connection with home on Christmas, and the group of more than 200 Hawaii maintenance personnel and pilots is halfway to home on their six-month deployment to the Middle East.

“This was the first time for me missing Christmas. However, thanks to a great WiFi connection here and my wife supporting from back home, I was able to enjoy seeing my kids open their presents on Christmas morning,” a lieutenant colonel and pilot in the Hawaii Air Guard said in an email. “I had flown two United States flags on my first combat sortie for my daughters, and it was touching to see their heartfelt responses opening those gifts.”

Hawaii National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Chuck Anthony asked that the crew member’s name not be used because of the “high visibility of being an F-22 pilot” and Islamic State’s use of social media to threaten service members and their families.

“The F-22s have been pretty instrumental in taking out a lot of high-value targets,” Anthony said.

At the midpoint of the deployment, the Hawaii fighter and strike aircraft have flown more than 100 sorties in combat or in a combat support role, dropping more than 130 GBU-32 1,000-pound bombs in Syria and Iraq.

“We have generally been tasked to target and destroy Daesh (another term for Islamic State) training camps, vehicle-borne improvised explosive device manufacturing and storage facilities, fighting areas, various Daesh headquarters facilities and Daesh-controlled oil distribution capabilities,” said the pilot.

The Air Force isn’t disclosing the number of Raptors in the theater, but a previous deployment involving a Florida unit included six F-22s. The Hawaii stealth fighters are the only F-22s in the region, Anthony said.

The majority of those deployed are from the Hawaii Air Guard, with active duty airmen from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam rounding out the contingent. The base from which the aircraft operate also wasn’t revealed due to host-nation sensitivities, Anthony said.

The Hawaii Raptors “have dropped ordnance on every combat mission we have flown over Syria and Iraq,” the 199th Fighter Squadron pilot said. “While there, we have also used our sensors to contribute to the overall situational awareness of the strike package.”

He added that the Raptors have been “performing extremely well in combat.” The Air Force previously said it is the first operational deployment for the state’s F-22s.

The primarily air operations the United States has undertaken in Operation Inherent Resolve have resulted in 7,018 strikes in Iraq and Syria as of Dec. 22, the Pentagon said. Other coalition members conducted 2,023 strikes in that time.

On Tuesday, Col. Steve Warren, the Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman, said during a Pentagon teleconference that over the past month, 10 Islamic State leadership figures were killed in airstrikes, including Charaffe al Mouadan, a Syrian-based Islamic State member linked to Abdel Hamid Abaaoud, the Paris attack cell leader.

Many of those missions were conducted by Predator and other drones, but not exclusively, Warren said. “I don’t have the breakout (of aircraft), but they were all done from the air,” he said.

The number of missions flown per week by the Hawaii Raptors has varied depending on the availability of other coalition aircraft in the theater, the Hawaii pilot said. Some weeks that means flying once or twice, but at others times it’s been four to five times in either a two-plane or four-plane formation of Raptors.

“When we’re not flying on combat missions, we also perform combat support missions nearby or conduct training with Navy or (other) air assets in the area,” the pilot said.

“Contributing to the fight against Daesh has been rewarding,” he said. “It’s a great feeling to be able to use the Raptor and the skills we have been honing in preparation for this deployment.”

The level of stress is “surprisingly not high,” he added. Pre-deployment training in the air and with a simulator provided “a good baseline for the level of intensity we have been facing.”

The stealth aircraft generally fly higher than all the other aircraft in the strike group, the lieutenant colonel said. “That provides us a pretty good buffer away from the ground in the case of anti-aircraft artillery. And our sensors, stealth and speed help us avoid being targeted by any surface-to-air missile systems while flying in Syria.”

The combat sorties are generally between five to six hours long with multiple air refuelings, mostly at night. One of the maintenance officers on the deployment said crews “are performing superbly.”

“We train for scenarios like this daily back home to develop our wartime skills,” the officer said. “Now, we’re using those same skills in a wartime environment to perform wartime missions. It’s a testament to the core values instilled in each of our airmen.”

The pilot said co-workers back home “have been a huge support to us. They are unsung heroes. They have been performing the (F-22) homeland defense mission 24/7 at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam with fewer pilots and maintenance personnel than what they are used to having.”

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