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Reserve, Active Duty begin training future AC-130J crews

Training wheels

Maj. Matthew Dempsey and Master Sgt. Christopher Sentilles, 5th Special Operations Squadron, stand in front of the AC-130J, the Air Force's newest close air support weapon system, at Hurlburt Field, Florida. The 5th SOS is one of 13 squadrons assigned to the 919th Special Operations Wing, the Air Force Reserve's only special operations wing, at nearby Duke Field. The 5th SOS augments the AC-130J Flight Training Unit, providing Reserve both full- and part-time instructor aircrews for the program. These Reserve Citizen Airmen are responsible for training Reserve and active duty crews alike. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Tech. Sgt. Kentavis Brackin)

DUKE FIELD, Fla. -- At Hurlburt Field, Florida, the Air Force's newest close-air support weapons system looms large on the flight line.

The AC-130J gunship offers a wide array of capabilities for CAS in the battlespace, boasting the most modern technology, from its munitions to its communication suite. At its helm is a team of Quiet Professionals--Reserve Citizen Airmen who are sharpening the tip of this lethal spear.

The 5th Special Operations Squadron works hand-in-hand with its active duty counterparts to train the Air Force's most capable gunship aircrews on this cutting-edge platform. Part of the 919th Special Operations Wing, the Air Force Reserve's only special operations wing, the 5th SOS has always embodied Total Force Integration. With their new mission, however, the 5th SOS has paved the way for the Reserve to claim a piece of the Air Force's modernization efforts, rather than maintaining the capabilities of legacy systems.

"The primary mission of the 5th SOS is to provide instructor cadre to the 19th Special Operations Squadron and teach the next generation aviator how to safely and effectively employ the weapon system," said Maj. Matthew Dempsey, 5th SOS assistant operations officer. "Our participation] in the AC-130J program provides invaluable continuity and expertise to the students, the schoolhouse, and the operational units and users. Having us involved early allows our unit to watch as the weapon system grows and adapts."

The first Reserve instructors began training on the new platform Feb. 25. By the end of 2019, they will be fully certified and working alongside their active duty counterparts to train both new instructors and operational crews.

No strangers to the Flight Training Unit, the 5th SOS has been producing gunship aircrews for years. The small cadre has accumulated more than 50,000 AC-130H/U flying hours and more than 10,000 instruction flying hours.

"With the exception of the patch on our uniforms, our students generally do not know if their instructor is active duty or Reserve," said Dempsey. "That speaks volumes to the commitment of Air Force Reserve Command and Air Force Special Operations Command for working together towards a common goal."

That professionalism and spirit of cooperation played a large role in securing the 5th SOS's billets for the AC-130J program. Over the course of two and a half years, the 5th SOS worked closely with both AFRC and AFSOC in order to advocate for the Reserve's involvement in standing up the new program.

"We were able to show the enormous amount of gunship talent and experience that would be lost if we weren't a part of the program," said Master Sgt. Christopher Sentilles, 5th SOS superintendent. "We are leveraging that experience to shorten the time requirements for instructors to upgrade in the AC-130J. Efforts like this will ensure we maintain a true TFI enterprise moving forward."

Forging new paths seldom comes without challenges, however, and the 5th SOS has demonstrated tremendous resiliency and innovation in order to accomplish their mission. In addition to the familiar struggles of meeting full-time training requirements on part-time schedules, the Citizen Air Commandos of the 5th SOS were also required to carve a unique place for the Reserve in a primarily active duty setting.

"Many of the draft regulations on the AC-130J do not yet include [Air Force Reserve Command] caveats, so we worked with our leadership to find the best way forward to continue to provide experienced and qualified instructors into 2030 and beyond," said Dempsey.

With a proven track-record of training one-third of the FTU's students, the 5th SOS hopes to maintain the same through-put despite the accelerated goal production-rate for AC-130J crews. Currently, 5th SOS has three instructor aircrews: one full-time crew comprised of active guard reserve billets, and two part-time crews comprised of traditional reservists. To meet the FTU's needs, AFSOC is already requesting to double the number of Reserve crews.

"The 5th SOS helps support the 19th SOS in producing combat-ready crews," said Sentilles. "The relationship we have with each other is respected and cherished and never taken for granted. This speaks volumes to our strict hiring qualifications, values, and standards."

As true TFI partners, the Citizen Air Commandos of the 5th SOS have ensured the Reserve's place at the forefront of the Air Force's future. Increasing readiness, improving lethality, and championing innovation, these Quiet Professionals prove to be an invaluable tool in supporting the warfighter against those who wish to do America harm.