YOUNGSTOWN AIR RESERVE STATION, Ohio --
The morning fog burns off to reveal the Appalachian Mountains. The Gauley River glimmers with the rising sun as eight shadows drag across the West Virginia landscape accompanied by a low rumble. It was meant to be a small exercise, but necessity turned it into something more.
“Rally in the Valley started as a small flying event in conjunction with the Senior Leadership Seminar that was supposed to happen at Youngstown this year,” said Maj. Chris “Crash” Acs, a pilot with the 327th Airlift Squadron from Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, and lead planner of Rally in the Valley. “Initially, we thought maybe it’d be three, four, maybe five planes and then it grew into ten planes.”
RITV kicked off on Aug. 22, 2020, with the 22nd Air Force’s SLS held over Zoom. The next three days, Aug. 23-25, brought 22nd units from across the United States together in air and cyberspace where they would plan together, fly together and take care of each other, while never actually seeing each other.
“The resurgence of COVID this summer gave some pause to 22nd Air Force leadership,” said Crash. “So eleven days before we went into execution, Maj. Gen. John Healy (commander of the 22nd AF) made the right decision, the safe decision, to go into what’s called distributed operations.”
In a short time, the 913th Airlift Group’s RITV lead planning cells and two 327th AS C-130Js moved operations to Charleston, WV. Youngstown Air Reserve Station, Ohio, staged two of its own 757th Airlift Squadron C-130Hs and one 908th Airlift Wing C-130H from Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. Mansfield Lahm Air National Guard Base, Ohio, staged one 94th Airlift Wing C-130H from Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia, and one 934th Airlift Wing C-130H from Minneapolis-St Paul Joint Air Reserve Station, Minnesota.
“The challenge was that I didn’t see the people up at Mansfield (or Youngstown),” said Crash. “I worked through Teams meetings, Zoom, telephone calls and emails trying to set everything up with people I’ve never met before.”
The West Virginia Air National Guard also provided a 130th Airlift Wing C-130H to fly in conjunction with 22nd AF units, bringing the final aircraft count to eight.
“COVID has kind of sidelined a large portion of the country to include, for a while, our military, so as reservists we have to stay sharp at what we do regardless of the conditions that are going on in the country, because the country still depends on us to be able to do a job,” said Crash. “The idea was that we would come back and prove that we were still capable of answering the nation’s call.”
Within three days the six units accomplished tactical departures, routes and recoveries, a wide variety of airdrops, secure radio events and datalink sorties while reacting to quick threat events brought on by the simulated enemies in the area.
“We’re going out and not just flying low level,” said Crash. “We’re doing routes that we’ve never done before, we’re going to drop zones that we’ve never been to before.”
What was originally going to be a small event grew into a 22nd AF exercise playing at a simulated deployment scenario, where they were fighting against a near-peer through an insurgent enemy in some contested space, land and air.
“We pulled out Google Maps and I said, ‘There’s Youngstown. West Virginia looks like a cool place to do some stuff. Hey, there’s a dirt landing zone. There’s an airport in Summersville, let’s make a drop zone there. Hey, there’s a lake, let’s make a drop zone over there,’” said Crash. “We started tracing our steps back to Camp Branch, and I said, ‘Hey, that mountain looks like a cool spot to drop something on.’ The whole thing came together like that on a Friday night. Then, distributed ops forced us away from each other thanks to COVID.”
Amid COVID and uncertain conditions, Rally in the Valley was a mission success as a proof of concept for future 22nd AF operations.