HOUSTON COUNTY, Ga. — Every real-world mission they flew was classified as secret -- or above.
Now, the military aircraft – based only in Georgia – has flown its last battlefield mission.
The E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or J-STARS, saved countless lives across the globe over the past two decades.
Since 2002, America’s premier battlefield management command and control aircraft in the overseas war on terror has been housed only at Robins Air Force Base Georgia.
Now, they have flown into history.
Channel 2 investigative reporter Mark Winne Mark went to the base where he met an officer who credits the J-STARS men and women for saving him on those missions.
“The J-STARS probably saved your life?” Winne asked Maj. Gen. Konata Crumbly with the Georgia Air National Guard.
“It did,” Crumbly said.
In 2003, Crumbly was a young Army captain who served in Iraq. His unit was bogged down in a blinding sandstorm.
“Literally, I would not be able to see you,” Crumbly said.
“Before J-STARS warned you, you had no idea that the Iraqi Republican Guard was advancing toward you?
“Yep,” Crumbly said.
“Tanks?” Winne asked.
“That’s correct. It was J-STARS that told us they were headed our way,” Crumbly said. “They were able to put F-15 Strike Eagles on to those targets and they never made it to us.”
“You could have been ambushed?” Winne asked Crumbly.
“It was it was definitely going to happen,” Crumbly said.
“I think all the time about the impact that we’ve had on (on cam) not only just the Army, Marines, Navy and even airmen that are down on the floor, but also the civilian lives that we had. This intrinsic call to service is to create a better future for everybody,” Georgia Air National Guard Chief Master Sgt. Ronnie Stevens said.
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In October, Winne and photojournalist Brian Ferguson boarded a J-STARS flight at Robins Air Force Base. -- one of J-STARS last flights.
Crumbly said the J-STARS program was ended the month. He said its last real-world mission was flown in September out of Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.
“We were there in Europe to support air superiority operations for our NATO allies and Poland,” Crumbly said.
Poland shares a border with Ukraine, which, as the world knows, is immersed in war with Russia.
Recently retired Georgia Air National Guard Maj. Gen. Thomas Grabowski who told us he flew 1,700 combat hours in J-STARS over Afghanistan and Iraq, said he knows J-STARS has alerted American soldiers or marines or our allies to approaching threats from enemies including Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Iraqi Republican Guard, ISIS and many others around the world.
“You’ve been over areas where drug cartels operate,” Winne asked Col. Chris Dunlap.
“Absolutely,” Dunlap said.
“And a lot of places you can’t tell us?” Winne asked.
“Yes,” Dunlap said.
Dunlap told Winne that the Georgia Guard’s 116th Air Control Wing he commands jointly operated J-STARS with an active-duty air force wing.
He said U.S. Army soldiers were often on board.
“We specialize in intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance,” Dunlap said.
The pilot for the flight Winne was on was Georgia Air National Guard Lt. Col Christopher Banks.
“I do what I do because I want to make sure that I do whatever I could in the defense of this great nation. If I have a talent about an asset, about a skill set, I want to put that to use to where we could be as safe as possible,” Banks said.
Capt. Andrea Coleman told Winne while she was a co-pilot on our flight, she was a pilot on that same airplane for that last real-world mission out of Germany.
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She said her first aviation job was a flight attendant, but she became the first Black female pilot in the Georgia Guard and an airline pilot as well.
“I’ve taken this jet around the world,” Coleman said.
Air National Guard Capt. Ryan Patterson told Winne that in the back of the J-STARS, air battle managers played specialized roles in getting help for folks in need on the ground.
“On the J-STARS, the navigator also plays a role in keeping the airplane away from threats?” Winne asked Lt. Col. Patrick Casey.
“Absolutely,” Casey said.
Georgia National Guard Adjutant Gen. Thomas Carden said J-STARS is done largely because of the threat of increasingly sophisticated weapons in the hands of our enemies.
“There’s new technology there to help us get that mission done in a way that doesn’t put people at risk,” Carden said.
He said much of that technology will be rooted in Georgia, including a U.S. Air Force flying communications platform.
Dunlap said many of the skills Georgia Guard members used on J-STARS, they will soon use in two new missions at Robins, but on the ground.
“No jobs are going to be lost and no flags are going down at Robins Air Force Base. That was the commitment of now two chiefs of staff of the Air Force,” Carden said.
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