GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - With 160 full time military and civilian employees, the Combat Readiness Training Center in Gulfport has an annual economic impact of $65 million. It's one of only four CRTC's in the nation. But what is perhaps most impressive about the facility, is the technology it hides inside.
"We're kind of a well-kept secret. We're trying to change that," says Colonel John "Hoss" Ladner, Commander at the Mississippi Air National Guard.
Whether it be Army, Navy, Air Force, active duty reserves, or the Coast Guard, the Air National Guard Combat Readiness Training Center caters to all branches of the military making them combat ready.
"We are a joint accredited facility," explains Col. Ladner. "And that's not easy to obtain, but we are accredited to train across the spectrum."
Col. John Ladner is proud to admit, what we have in Gulfport is something very few places can offer.
"We have some of the best air space anywhere in the nation to train in. We have a great air space over the water and over the land - up at Camp Shelby, where they can go and use the air to ground bombing range or our assault strip. Or fly right out of here and use the combat training system, which is much like what you saw at "Top Gun".
Just like the movie, those training missions out over the Gulf are all air to air combat missions, fighter pilots engaging in battle.
For the real life fighter pilots, every second of the mission is monitored through remote pods, part of the P5 combat training system.
"This is the latest and greatest technology out there." Jim Jones, an Electronics Technician at the CRTC, shows off a P5 pod in a large workshop on base.
"It's for pilot training purposes, and we load them on any kind of fighter jet that is capable of carrying a missile," Jones said.
It may look like a missile, but inside is a highly sophisticated computer used to record everything from altitude and air speed, to heading orientation, even the direction of the sun.
"And they can watch it while it's happening or after the fact, once they come back," explains Jones. "And they're not limited to just where they're at. They can fly this anywhere world wide and take the information off what's recorded, download it into a computer and replay it."
In a nearby room, another technician focuses on how the information plays out on computer monitors.
"Well this is where it all comes together. All the data from the aircraft is collected here," explains Duane Blue as he points to a computer monitor.
Training officers on the ground can monitor their pilots' maneuvers as it's happening. The video play-play looks a lot like a video game. Pilots find it invaluable because they can get a detailed look at the missions they fly.
"They may want to see a chase of this aircraft, or they may want to see a heads up display from this aircraft. And they can critique themselves. They can see what they did wrong. What they did right," said First Sergeant Michael Jamison.
The CRTC in Gulfport was the first to receive the P5 training system. With an estimated 96,000 missions flown each year, Col. Ladner says the base is a leader in training pilots.
"Our combat training system is number three in the world behind Red Flag, which is out at Nellis, much like again "Top Gun", but out of the Air Force, and I believe it's the Alaska range, but we're number 3 and catching up quickly."
Blue agrees the training is essential in preparing U.S. troops for war.
"It means our pilots become the greatest fighting force in the air, in the world. It makes all the difference that they have this type of training."
The Gulfport CRTC also serves as a hub for the P5 combat training system. If units can't come here to use the Gulf range for training, the CRTC brings the training to them. It maintains 180 pods, that can be shipped across the country.
Up the road, the CRTC also operates a bombing range on the east side of Camp Shelby. It's a vast field riddled with objects used as target practice for some of America's fiercest flying machines
There are only 14 air to ground bombing ranges in the nation. With the closest competitor hundreds of miles away, the range at Camp Shelby stays very busy.
"Airspace is never empty. Always someone is using it," explains Lt. Colonel Tommy Gunter. "It is a national asset in the national airspace system. You can't find this anywhere."
Msgt. Michael Cooper also works at the East Air to Ground Bombing Range. He adds, "And our customers are not just from Mississippi. They're from the whole area. We get them from Texas, Florida, Alabama. So it's a multitude of places that people come from just to use this range."
Msgt Cooper and Lt. Col. Gunter work together in the control tower, to closely monitor the planes that use this restricted air space.
At deafening speeds of 570 miles per hour, F-16 pilots take aim at their target, and drop inert bombs.
"They're required to release a certain number of air to ground munitions, certain number of profiles," says Lt. Col. Gunter.
Every attack is recorded, and pilots are told how close they came to the target.
There are even diversions to signify enemy fire. And an unmanned drone high above shadows the mission to capture a bird's eye view.
"It helps hone their skills so when they are actually over there something comes up, that they may have encountered here; they'll know a little bit better how to work with it. Hopefully preventing some sort of mishap," says Msgt. Cooper.
Air carriers like Keesler's Flying Jennies also use the air to ground range at Shelby. Instead of dropping bombs, the C-130's are unloading large platforms of what would be humanitarian goods or supplies.
Whether it be in Desoto National Forest, or in the heart of Gulfport, the Combat Readiness Training Center offers a multitude of training opportunities for America's soldiers.
Colonel John Ladner attributes all its success to his airmen - our soldiers, the men and women who work and train in South Mississippi.