DISPATCH: US Air Force Lightning Challenge Tests TACP Skill, Endurance at Fort Hood

October 27, 2020Marty Skovlund Jr.
tacp competition, air force, JTAC, fort hood, coffee or die

2020 Lightning Challenge in Fort Hood. Photo by Ethan E. Rocke/Coffee or Die Magazine.

The wind howled and the rain poured constant as a pair of the US Air Force’s most deadly battlefield airmen made their way up and then down a massive obstacle called The Weaver on Fort Hood’s air assault obstacle course. The task was not easy, forcing the airmen to move up and over one wet log before going up and under the next, bringing them approximately 20 feet off the ground at the peak. Not an easy day, but an easy day wasn’t expected. 

This was just one of the many challenges presented on Monday when the US Air Force gathered 14 two-man teams composed of the best Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) specialists from across the service for Lightning Challenge 2020. The competition tests each team’s technical and tactical competence, as well as their physical endurance and ability to work as a team. 

lightning challenge, tacp competition, air force, JTAC, fort hood, coffee or die
Competitors in the 2020 Lightning Challenge tackle The Weaver obstacle course at Fort Hood, Texas. Photo by Ethan E. Rocke/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Lightning Challenge used to be an annual event hosted by the TACP schoolhouse and held at Hurlburt Field, Florida, but went on a long hiatus due to constant deployments to war zones around the world. Indeed, TACPs have been busy. Earlier this year, eight TACPs assigned to the 17th Special Tactics Squadron were recognized for their valor on a recent deployment to Afghanistan with two Bronze Stars with “V” devices, two Purple Hearts, one Joint Service Commendation Medal with “V” device, seven Air Force Commendation Medals with “C” devices, and one Joint Service Achievement Medal with “C” device.

But awards alone cannot explain just how important the TACP is on the modern battlefield nor the sheer volume of violence they are capable of raining down on our nation’s enemies. Although they are known for their Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) certification, they are much more than “just a JTAC.” According to the US Air Force, they specialize in synchronizing air assets into the ground battlespace, routinely embedding with Army, Navy, and Marine Corps maneuver elements to manage large areas of operations, maximizing the lethal and nonlethal effects of airpower while simultaneously minimizing risk to friendly forces and noncombatants.

lightning challenge, tacp competition, air force, JTAC, fort hood, coffee or die
Teams participate in the 2020 Lightning Challenge, testing the mettle of US Air Force TACPs. Photo by Ethan E. Rocke/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Now in its second year back, Lightning Challenge is a weeklong competition hosted by the 3rd Air Support Operations Group and featuring a variety of events. The winning team will be announced Friday. It’s a friendly competition, and one that promotes esprit de corps as much as it tests the career field’s best. 

On the first day, teams had to complete a knowledge test before moving on to the Fort Hood air assault obstacle course, where they moved swiftly through a variety of challenging obstacles made even more difficult by the weather. All teams were in good spirits though, many cracking jokes and smiling as they made their way through mud, sand, and sometimes dizzying heights. 

tacp competition, air force, JTAC, fort hood, coffee or die
Teams participate in the 2020 Lightning Challenge, testing the mettle of US Air Force TACPs. Photo by Ethan E. Rocke/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there were no friends or family allowed to watch, and teams were staggered so that only one group at a time was on the course. These restrictions make for a much more intimate competition where teams are often by themselves with the cadre selected to grade each event, and their competition is nowhere in sight.

After successfully completing the obstacle course, the teams moved on to the Fort Hood stadium to conduct a Marine Corps Combat Fitness Test, administered by local Marines. Although all the competitors belonged to the US Air Force, the Marines’ test was selected so that the teams were presented a new challenge that most had not previously experienced. 

lightning challenge, tacp competition, air force, JTAC, fort hood, coffee or die
Teams are put through the US Marine Corps Combat Fitness Test on the first day of the 2020 Lightning Challenge. Photo by Ethan E. Rocke/Coffee or Die Magazine.

The Marine Corps Combat Fitness Test is no walk in the park. The test is composed of three different sections:

  • Run 880 yards, or two laps around a track, in full uniform.

  • Press a 30-pound ammo can from shoulder to overhead as many times as possible in two minutes.

  • Finally, perform a maneuver-under-fire simulation event — which features a menu of sprints, agility course, high crawl, low crawl, body drag, fireman carry, ammo can carry, pushups, and grenade throw — all over the course of 300 yards. 

Without exception, every TACP team gave the test a 100% effort and finished exhausted — often on the ground and out of breath. And with each passing iteration, the temperature at Fort Hood continued to drop, adding a bite to the ever-present wind and rain. No easy day was given, no easy day was expected. 

On Tuesday, competitors stepped off on a ruck march long before the sun crested the Texas horizon. The weather forecasts predict that conditions will only be colder and wetter than Monday. No easy day will be given, and no easy day is expected. 

Editor’s note: This is the first dispatch in what will be an ongoing series as Coffee or Die Magazine covers the 2020 Lightning Challenge. Check back tomorrow for our next update. 

Marty Skovlund Jr.
Marty Skovlund Jr.

Marty Skovlund Jr. is the founding editor of Coffee or Die Magazine. As a journalist, Marty has covered the Standing Rock protest in North Dakota, embedded with American special operation forces in Afghanistan, and broken stories about the first females to make it through infantry training and Ranger selection. He has also published two books, appeared as a co-host on History Channel’s JFK Declassified, and produced multiple award-winning independent films.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
US Launches Airstrikes in Syria After Drone Kills US Worker

While it’s not the first time the U.S. and Iran have traded airstrikes in Syria, the attack and the ...

March 24, 2023Associated Press
The Gift jason dunham
‘The Gift’ Explores the Life and Legacy of Medal of Honor Recipient Jason Dunham

"The Gift" tells the story of the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor after the Vietnam War. ...

March 24, 2023Mac Caltrider
uss milius
US Denies Chinese Claim It Drove Away American Destroyer

The U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet said that a statement from China's Southern Theatre Command that it had fo...

March 23, 2023Associated Press
The Speed Project: Vet Team To Run in Lawless, Invite-Only Ultramarathon

For the first time, a team of (mostly) US veterans and active-duty service members will run in The S...

March 23, 2023Jenna Biter
uranium-based ammo ammunition Ukraine UK depleted uranium
A Look At the Uranium-Based Ammo the UK Will Send to Ukraine

The British defense ministry on Monday confirmed it would provide Ukraine with armor-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium.

March 23, 2023Associated Press
Zaporizhzhia Ukraine Russia
Ukraine: Russia Hits Apartments and Dorm, Killing Civilians

“Russia is shelling the city with bestial savagery,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote in a Telegr...

March 22, 2023Associated Press
cold brew coffee soda float
The Bitter Barista's Cold Brew Coffee Soda Float

Today, we combine the best of both worlds with this indulgent recipe, smashing together our love of coffee and ice cream with a cold brew coffee soda float!

March 21, 2023Heather Lynn
abrams tanks ukraine
US Speeds Up Abrams Tank Delivery to Ukraine War Zone

The original plan was to send Ukraine 31 of the newer M1A2 Abrams, which could have taken a year or ...

March 21, 2023Associated Press
  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
  • Request a Correction
  • Write for Us
  • General Inquiries
© 2023 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved