I can’t believe I’m doing this!
This was my initial reaction to finding myself beside the runway at the joint USAF/ROKAF Kunsan air base, taking photos of usually very camera-shy ROKAF F-16s and, not only was I not being wrestled to the ground at gunpoint, but I was actually allowed to do it!
If you followed my previous articles on Buddy-Wing 15-4, the Theatre Security Package and the 8th FW (the Wolfpack), you will have (probably) picked up on the fact that I had the privilege of visiting Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, back in June 2015, with friend and fellow photographer; Jake Melampy, thanks to the generosity of the 8th FW. Whilst getting to see and photograph those previous aspects of Kunsan’s operations were each amazing experiences in their own right, the one thing which had filled me with both anticipation and apprehension leading up to the trip was what would happen with the ROKAF aspect of the visit? It would be an amazing opportunity to get to see any ROKAF operations up-close but the Korean military is not known for its fondness of people with cameras.
There are other USAF forces in Korea (most notably at Osan, where the 7th Air Force is headquartered) but Kunsan is unique in that it is the only base where USAF and ROKAF units are co-located. This is an extremely important arrangement as it allows the two countries, via the based units, the 111th FS, 38th FG ROKAF and the 8th FW USAF, to develop tactics, identify issues and exploit the benefits of combined operations between the Korean and American Air Forces which can then be applied to other units based in or deployed to South Korea. This is vital to both countries as the ability to effectively conduct combined operations at very short notice in times of heightened tensions would be critical to their success.
This special relationship between the Koreans and Americans at Kunsan would be an absolute bonus for my visit as, although we were visiting and hosted by the 8th FW USAF, it meant that I might have a truly rare and unique opportunity to witness operations of the 111th FS ROKAF as well! I didn’t have long to wait either as, on the morning of the first day, after getting signed in, some initial briefings and a hearty breakfast, as we pulled up for one of the first interviews of the day, I was greeted with the sight of a flight of KF-16s taxiing out for the first wave of the day. They looked so cool and the light was great but I had to concentrate on the interview I was supposed to do. It was only early on the first day, so I thought I’d better not go “full avgeek” too soon.
I needn’t have worried though as, well aware of the unique relationship and keen for the opportunity to show it off, the amazing people from the 8th FW Public Affairs had already made arrangements with their ROKAF counterparts, not just for me to see the jets out on the airfield, but to visit their flight line and meet squadron and group Commanding Officers as well. Could this possibly get any better?!
My first introduction to ROKAF operations was a meeting with the 111th FS Commander, Lt Col “Tiger”, where he discussed what it takes to become a fighter pilot in the ROKAF, the wide range of mission profiles the squadron performs in its day-to-day operations which include air defence, close air support and suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) (all whilst remaining prepared to respond to any threats at a moment’s notice) and even what it was like to fly some of the other aircraft he had flown in the past, such as the F-5.
Following this, I was allowed to witness the next mission sign for their aircraft before heading out to catch the Lt Col and the other pilots suiting up and stepping out to their aircraft. I was escorted to the shelter where the Lt Col’s aircraft and ground crew awaited him (a KF-16D for this flight). This mission was to be a training flight for a junior pilot on the Sqn and when we arrived inside the shelter, I was amazed to see that the aircraft was loaded with a live 500Lb Mk82 bomb! It wasn’t the live weapon itself that surprised me but the fact that I considered myself extremely lucky to be allowed to take photos of any ROKAF aircraft in the first place, so to find myself inside one of their shelters, and actually allowed to take photos of an armed aircraft as well, was absolutely incredible (I actually stopped and asked my escort, “Are you sure this is ok?”).
I followed the Lt Col and his student through their pre-flight walk-around and strapping in and the engine start inside the shelter. We then moved outside to get the jets taxing out. Unfortunately the sun wasn’t in my favour as the jets emerged but, hey, I was shooting ROKAF F-16s!
Following the time on the flight line, I was honoured with the opportunity to meet the commander of the 38th FG, the parent unit of the 111th FS, Col “Thor”. He described the role of the Group in providing support, planning, logistics and oversight for the operations of its single flying unit, the 111th FS, through the operations of the 38th Base and 38th Logistics squadrons and the vital role played in liaising with the USAF, through the co-based 8th FW, in developing tactics and procedures for joint ROKAF /USAF operations should the need arise. He also spoke of his understanding that the men and women of the USAF serving in Korea, are a long way from home, and that he felt that it was important to help them feel welcome in his country with social events and gatherings between the two groups on a regular basis.
The weather/air quality on the second day of my visit wasn’t the best plus the focus of the day was on the 8th FW and their operations but the third day dawned beautifully clear. We were given the opportunity to visit the control tower in the morning which, as the runway is due north/south and the tower is on the eastern side we had perfect light. The 8th FW were flying afternoon/night sorties during my visit so the only movements in the morning were from the ROKAF, so we got to see several waves of F-16s depart in glorious sunshine from a fantastic vantage point.
Later in the morning we were able to catch many of these aircraft returning from their sorties at the far end of the runway where they completed their end-of-runway (EOR) checks before returning to their dispersals. The best vantage point for this action was actually from the on-base service station. So it felt quite strange to pull into the servo, buy a drink, then casually step across the road to shoot a few ROKAF jets (with permission)!
This incredible day was rounded out with a few hours on the grass on the western side of the runway to catch the afternoon’s waves of US 8th FW, 114th FW and ROKAF 111th FS departures and returns. To be honest, while the whole visit was obviously an amazing experience, it was this final day, in great weather, which gave me the “am I really doing this?” feeling. Being allowed to legally shoot ROKAF F-16s from the tower and beside the road in the morning and the whole base of US and Korean F-16s from beside the runway all afternoon was just about as good as it gets for an Avgeek.
I can’t thank the men and women of the 8th FW enough for allowing me the great privilege of visiting Kunsan and getting to witness their operations up close and I am also extremely grateful to the ROKAF’s 111th FS and 38th FG for allowing me the unique opportunity to photograph their aircraft and witness some of their daily operations. It was an absolutely incredible experience.