Hitting the mark: US, Polish forces take aim

POWIDZ AIR BASE, Poland -- The sun rises over the horizon.

Clear skies and cold weather form the perfect combination for what is about to take place.

U.S. Air Force aircrew members stand underneath the wing of their C-130 Hercules aircraft on the flight line during pre-checks before a training mission at Powidz Air Base, Poland.

While the previous training missions carried importance, this mission has a little more at stake than the ones before it: the pride of the Illinois Air National Guard.

Two U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft from the Illinois ANG 182nd Airlift Wing, and one Polish air force C-130E cargo aircraft participated in a "turkey shoot" competition Oct. 24, 2014, at Powidz Air Base, Poland.

The Airmen supported Aviation Detachment rotation 15-1 hosted by Detachment 1, 52nd Operations Group, at Łask Air Base, Poland.

The "turkey shoot" is comprised of an air drop and tactical landing competition.

As part of the rules, the Polish C-130E received two attempts compared to each U.S. C-130 only getting one try per event.

Air drops simulate delivering supplies to allies when and where our aircraft cannot land.

Tactical landings consist of touchdowns on short or unimproved runways in tight and remote areas where supplies might be needed.

"You train like you fight and fight like you train," said U.S. Air Force Capt. Brian Rezac, 182nd Operations Support Squadron executive officer and C-130 aircraft commander from Peoria, Illinois. "Any chance we have to execute a competition like this and really showcase our skills, we always take it."

Airmen at the drop zone give pilots the green light to release their packages. One by one, planes fly overhead and release their packages. Parachutes open, and Airmen on the ground watch in anticipation.

The packages slowly float down to earth. The cold bitter wind push them around until the packages hit their target. As each one does, one country's Airmen celebrate.

News trickles down that the Polish team beat the U.S. team in the drop zone portion. Yet there's no time to celebrate, and the team's collective attention quickly turns to the next portion of the "turkey shoot."

The runway remains clear. Three orange markers line the landing zone, with the middle one serving as the target for each aircraft's wheels.

Polish and U.S. Airmen watch as the aircraft line up for their attempt.

The roar of the four engines grow louder as they approach touchdown.

Smoke billows behind the tires as the three aircraft touch the runway at their attempt in the tactical landing competition.

Airmen quickly run out to measure the distance marked by the tires away from the intended target.

A handful of meters separate the three teams, but U.S. Air Force Capt. Jason Riggs, 169th AS C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft pilot from Pekin, Illinois, and his crew took home the landing zone title.

"It was awesome to see the competitive nature in our NATO allies--that's something that I think is standard across humanity," Riggs said. "We're all very competitive, so I hate to admit that our crew came in third place overall. But it was a great competition. It was good to see everyone enjoy themselves and continue to push to make themselves better."

The day ended with a barbeque hosted by the Poles with a bonfire set to keep both Airmen warm from the cold.

"My crew and I took first place overall, I couldn't have done it without my crew and certainly the other pilots in the competition were very worthy and excellent aircrew members," Rezac said "It could have gone to just about any one of us."