by Jim Mulligan
It’s not very often that a contingent of Ukrainian Air Force officers, or any foreign air force officers for that matter, land in Reedley for a little R and R. But, on a hot August evening this year, that’s exactly what happened. No, they didn’t literally land their fighter jets in Reedley. They traveled to Fresno to participate in joint exercises with the local Air National Guard as part of a continuing mission of mutual training and good will. After a long day of exercises, they came out to Reedley’s Hillcrest Farms just outside the city limits to eat, drink, and enjoy each other’s company.
The mutual partnership is long-running and serves several purposes. Captain Andril Pilshchykov is the Senior Pilot of the Technical Aviation Brigade, stationed near Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. From Ukraine’s point of view, Pilshchykov explained, “We are learning about preparation for air fights. You know, Ukraine utilizes the old Soviet system of training. We have some modern technology, but we need to upgrade our training. That’s why we are here.”
While the Ukrainians benefit from learning about training protocols used by U.S military pilots, the benefits for the U.S. are totally different. Col. Rob “Tigger” Swertfager is the Operations Group Commander for the California Air National Guard in Fresno. According to Col. Swertfager, while the evening of recreational activities in Reedley came after a long day of tactical training and discussions, the diplomacy and relationship-building that comes with the recreation is actually the primary goal of the long-term partnership. Swertfager says that while there is a tactical aspect to the joint effort, there is definitely a strategic aspect as well. “They [Ukraine] are in conflict with Russia…it’s in our best interest that Ukraine stays as a strong secure buffer against Russia.” While a large portion of the time spent together involves tactical training exercises that strengthen Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, the diplomatic relationships that emerge are extremely important to the continued positive affiliation between the U.S. and Ukraine. Swertfager himself has been traveling to Ukraine, and hosting Ukrainian Air Force and Army since 2002; he believes that the strong personal bonds that he and others have developed with their international counterparts will pay off in the future if conflict ever escalates with Russia.
While this joint program between the Air National Guard and Ukrainian Air Force has been a great opportunity for both countries, it has not come without setbacks. This recent October 16 marked the first anniversary of just one of those setbacks. Just over one year ago, during training exercises in the Ukraine, two pilots, one American and one Ukrainian, died when their SU-27 crashed during a familiarization flight. Fresno native and Clovis High School graduate, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Seth “Jethro” Nehring, assigned to the California Air National Guard in Fresno, was the U.S. pilot in the fighter jet. Of course, the loss of the two pilots was devastating for their families and their fellow airmen. Yet, as Col. Swertfager comes to terms with the loss, he admits that it has cemented the already strong bonds felt between the two nations. “We’ve trained together and we’ve bled together.”
Despite the setbacks, this type of international cooperation may be an example of the best kind of diplomacy. When one thinks about international relations, the idea of special envoys or ambassadors traveling to meet with heads of state in a far-off land is likely what comes to mind. In actuality, diplomacy happens at many levels, frequently simultaneously, and sometimes in contradiction of one another, yet all for a common purpose. Even if formal diplomatic efforts seem to be struggling, it could just be these grassroots relationships that continue to shape our strong international partnerships, the kind of positive relationships that might eventually bring peace to all corners of the world.
If you are a native or long-time resident of the Central Valley, you can appreciate the slower, less hectic pace that we all keep. You might not realize that among the tranquility, local heroes are taking on the role of diplomat, hosting international guests who won’t make the evening news, but may someday be our best allies in difficult times. That’s exactly what the pilots of the Fresno-based California Air National Guard, 194th Fighter Squadron are doing when they are not conducting training flights to protect California from the air. It’s a complex and interesting mission on top of an already complex and interesting mission. It’s pretty cool that our little town of Reedley gets to lend a helping hand to the undertaking.