It wasn’t a sight the residents of the northern Michigan town of Alpena would ever expect to see, but on Thursday evening, the Michigan Air National Guard landed aircraft on a four-lane highway.

And they weren’t just any aircraft landing on the road, but four A-10 Thunderbolt attack aircraft and two C-146 Wolfhounds. The planes landed and then took off from the M32 in Alpena. This was the first time that U.S. Air Force aircraft have landed on and taken off from a U.S. highway. The highly unusual event was part of Thunder Landing Zone that is a component of the Northern Strike exercise. 

The M32 highway was closed for five hours during Thunder Landing Zone. The annual Northern Strike training exercise, which was hosted by the Michigan National Guard at Camp Grayling and the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, will continue through August 14.

Air Force A-10s ready for takeoff in the northern Michigan town of Alpena. (USAF Photo)

“Thunder LZ gave the pilots the opportunity to land in an austere environment that they’re not used to,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Brian Wyrzykowski, the mission commander for Thunder Landing Zone. “Our adversaries have advanced weapons systems and advanced technology that they can use against us, so we need to be able to operate efficiently in austere situations and gain proficiency in those operations.”

“The idea was to build confidence in what we thought we could do. We’ve done it overseas before,” Col. Matt Robins, commander of the Michigan Air National Guard’s 127th Operations Group, said to the Military Times.

“Today, we put four A-10s and two C-146s in on a less than one mile stretch of Highway 32 outside of Alpena,” Robins added. “Today was our opportunity to put into practice what we’ve been training and practicing too. To engage in agile combat employment as part of exercise Northern Strike.”

The Michigan Department of Transportation posted a video of the A-10s taking off.

The Michigan State Police wrote, “No citations for speeding were issued during the exercise.” 

The Enemy Captured Your Base? Land on a Highway

As part of the exercise, Air Force Special Operations Tactics Airmen jumped in, seized the town of Alpena, and set up the section of highway to aid the aircraft in landing, refueling, re-arming, and then taking off again. Thus, they simulated combat in an austere environment. 

During the exercise, the Air Force’s simulated base came under enemy attack and the Air Force personnel had to jump into action. 

“This is part of [operating in] a contested environment for the last week and a half. While those airplanes were landing on the highway, the base they took [off] from was under simulated attack. These A-10s were able to land, and then simulate refitting, rearming, refueling and then get back into the fight,” Robbins said.

A-10 attack aircraft land on a Michigan highway during Operation Northern Strike (USAF photo)

While this landing on U.S. highways is a first, the Air Force has performed highway landings abroad.

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In June 2018, A-10s from the Michigan Air National Guard conducted highway landings in Estonia as part of the multinational exercise Saber Strike.

During the Cold War, the use of highways to land attack aircraft wasn’t uncommon since the airbases in Western Europe were expected to be targets during a WWIII scenario. This could happen again in the future as drones could knock out airbases in a conflict.

Nevertheless, highway landings allow the Air Force to project air power from anywhere on the globe during times of war. 

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