Cuda - You Have Heard About Him, Now Read About Him
By Juri Keyter
“I wanted to be a fighter pilot for as long as I can remember” says Major Kevin Currie, United States Air Force Attachés to South Africa better known as “Cuda”. With a Master's degree in Mathematics (Algebraic Cryptography) and Bachelor's Degrees in Mathematics, Operations Research, Economics, a minor in Russian, and a collegiate athlete (Skydiving), he could have become anything but persevered with his childhood dreams and became a fighter jock. After graduating from the United States Air Force Academy in 1998 and completing his masters at the North Carolina State University in 1999, Kevin started his pilot training at the Laughlin AFB, Del Rio, Texas. At this stage of his career, Kevin had already acquired 40 hours of flying on a Cessna C172, a civilian program sponsored by the military to introduce candidates to aviation before commencing with the actual military pilot training. His air force training started on a Cessna T-37 multi-engine jet and he thereafter progressed to the T-38 for a further six months to earn his wings.
Flying fighter jets is not in everyone's ability and rigorous training followed for the next five months to ensure that only the best are kept on the program while performing G-training, survival training, POW training and water survival training. Those who managed to demonstrate strong mental and physical ability proceeded to the “Introduction of Fighter Fundamentals” where they started to learn about fighter formations and basic fighter manoeuvres. The actual F-15 Eagle training is a nine month formal course where pilots learn more about the technical aspects of the jet, its flying characteristics and after some 69 hours, Kevin qualified to fly the F-15 and was ready for his first deployment as a pilot at the bottom of the food chain.
Kevin's first assignment was to Lakenheath in England where he spent the first three months becoming mission qualified. With continuous training being part of the military philosophy, he briefly returned back to Florida in the USA for some missile training and testing and it was on this exercise where Kevin received his callsign. A radar guided missile fire by Kevin destroyed a drone and although this was not the objective of the exercise, a kill for the pilots was a reason for celebration. While on a scuba diving excursion the next day, Kevin chummed the water from the boat and thereby shared the previous night's celebration of the drone kill with a school of barracudas. Of course this was the moment his squadron mates were waiting for and Kevin became Cuda.
In July 2003 Cuda and his squadron was deployed to Qatar from where they supported “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and Cuda flew a total of 28 combat missions during this four month assignment. With extremely high temperature and humidity levels, living in tents with the desert winds blowing dust all over did not make life easy. Although Cuda grew up in Chicago and Florida, he acclimatized to the cold weather in England prior to this deployment and being sweaty and covered with dust most of the time was a new experience.
Cuda's second assignment was to Baumholder Army Base in Germany where he served from 2004 to 2007. During this time Cuda deployed to Bagdad for a five month stint during “Operation Iraqi Freedom” but this time as a forward Air Controller. Liaising with the ground commander and relaying air support requirements to the air force was his principal duties. Being on the ground in the action while understanding the capabilities and mentalities of the pilots in the air made Cuda the ideal officer for this vital link.
The most exciting Cuda stories, at least for me, were during his deployment to Bagram in Afghanistan. Cuda was the chief of mobility and flew 56 combat missions as an experienced flight leader. From Cuda's photographs it is clear that he truly appreciated the beauty of Afghanistan and I could see it in his face that he was saddened by the destruction, poverty and poor governance in that country. On the bright side, at least the living quarters were better than the tents in Qatar even though it is a far cry from luxury accommodation.
Winchester, the unclassified code word used when pilots have release all their weapons is any fighter pilots dream. While up at altitude waiting for a call for air support from the ground troops, a weapons cache was discovered by one of the patrols. Cuda and his wingman were requested to drop a bomb in the location of the cache to destroy all the weapons stashed in caves and underground chambers in a dry river bed. After the explosion of their first bomb, more and more caves became exposed which in turn opened more arms caches and the bombing continued until they have released their entire on-board ordinance. This was a milestone in Cuda's career and it was an absolute pleasure to start his next radio transmission with the word “Winchester”.
Bingo fuel and Joker fuel are two code words indicating a pilot's fuel level and phase of his flight. Cuda has some interesting stories portraying his courage by engaging the enemy while at bingo fuel (low fuel reserves) but from an aviation perspective, their fuel requirements and the in-flight refuelling is just as fascinating. Missions could on occasion last up to twelve hours with a refuelling requirement every thirty minutes. It is incredible to hear that there are two tankers constantly in the air to support fighters around the clock and although the F-15 technology is very impressive, considering the other logistics involved to support these missions is simply mind blowing.
We all simply assume that the F-15 is equipped with advanced technology but very few of us realise the extent of this leap. Cuda's stories and experiences are often a direct result of the features and support systems available to them in the cockpit. One example is the infrared beam controlled by the weapons officer in the rear of the aircraft. Similar to the laser beam of the F-15 used to guide bombs, the infrared beam is used during night operations for illumination while using night vision equipment. During boring flights at high altitude waiting for air support requests, pilots sometimes use this infrared beam for sward fighting games to entertain themselves. Two aircraft approaching from opposite directions turn these beams on and count the amount of times they can get it crossed. The extremely capable radar on-board is also used to keep track of the flight leader or wingman positions during IFR formations and is not only to detect threats. Flying a mission and dropping bombs in Afghanistan alongside a drone operated by someone sitting in Las Vegas is truly astonishing.
Cuda's last assignment to Afghanistan was in 2009 as a liaison officer in Kabul. I very important aspect of the United Nations led involvement in Afghanistan was economic and social development. Ancient artefacts are being destroyed on a daily bases by opposing political factions and terrorist groups while poor Afghan farmers grow poppy plantations for the drug trade as their only form of revenue. Cuda participated in poppy eradication exercises while at the same time engaging and encourage farmers to seize poppy farming based on the destructive consequence of this plant. This was of course no easy task. How do you convince someone to walk away from the only source of revenue he has?
During our interview, Cuda fascinated me with his F-15 technology talk, pilot adventure talk and the fact that US fighter pilots fly 250 hours per year as opposed the entire annual Gripen budget of 250 hours here in South Africa. But I soon realised that this story is not about Cuda. It is rather a reflection of all UN pilots away from home for months (sometimes years) on end, living in hostile and uncomfortable conditions and there is no way I can portray all the information Cuda has to offer in as single article. Clubs and organisations are therefore encouraged to invite Cuda as a guest speaker at their topic meetings or functions.
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