Air Guard partners exercise in Ukraine 18 JULY 2011 MIRGOROD AIR BASE, Ukraine -- More than 140 members of the Air National Guard landed aircraft in Ukraine, preparing for a U.S. European Command-sponsored aerial military-to-military exchange event titled SAFE SKIES 2011. A rainbow unit of Air National Guard Airmen comprising members from Alabama, California, Iowa, Washington and Massachusetts flew into a base that until July 16 only had seen use by Mig-29s and Su-27s. Following the advance teams of maintenance and support personnel, seven F-16C Fighting Falcons from Alabama and Iowa cut through the calm, blue Ukrainian sky. The F-16Cs were among the first American fighter jets to touch down in this former Soviet-bloc country. These ANG Airmen are part of the State Partnership Program which will play a major role in SAFE SKIES 2011, a joint U.S., Ukraine and Polish event where by the Air Guard pilots will fly engagements with Ukrainian Su-27s and Mig-29s and Polish F-16s on air sovereignty operations in preparation for the 2012 Olympics and EUROCup and the 2014 Winter Games in Europe. This event has an overall goal of promoting and enhancing multinational cooperation in an effort to promote airspace security. "Working together with the Ukrainian and Polish air forces is important to U.S. interests, in that it helps promote regional stability," said Lt. Col. Robert Swertfager, SAFE SKIES 2011 project officer and an F-16 pilot from the California Air National Guard's 144th Fighter Wing in Fresno. "This event increases our collective capacity to address common security challenges." The foundation of the event is the National Guard's State Partnership Program. The California National Guard is a state partner with Ukraine and the Illinois National Guard is a partner with Poland. These partnerships have led the way over the past six years, developing relationships that allow for this massive collaborative effort. After two years of planning, the fighters landed on July 16, with crowds of Ukrainian air force members watching as the Mirgorod Air Base ramp began to be filled with U.S. fighter aircraft. The effort to bring American fighters to the Ukraine was carefully coordinated by the guardsmen, ensuring they traveled with the right tools to fix these jets, with limited shared resources with the Ukrainians. Lt. Gen. Vasyl Nikiforov, deputy commander of the Ukrainian air force, voiced his gratitude for the U.S. cooperation as he officiated a Ukrainian custom of sharing bread with the pilots as they landed. He said through translation that he was very excited to have his pilots fly with the U.S. Air Force and looks forward to a successful exchange. An F-16 Fighting Falcon from the Alabama Air National Guard taxis on the ramp at Mirgorod Air Base, Ukraine, July 16, 2011, passing Ukrainian SU-27s and MIG-29s. The U.S. fighters arrived for SAFE SKIES 2011, a joint Ukraine, Poland and U.S. aerial exchange event. An F-16 Fighting Falcon from the Alabama Air National Guard makes a pass over Mirgorod Air Base, Ukraine, July 16, 2011. The U.S. fighters were there for SAFE SKIES 2011, a joint Ukraine, Poland and U.S. exchange event. Ukrainian air force pilots at Mirgorod Air Base, Ukraine, gather with U.S. Air National Guard pilots after they shared bread, a traditional Ukrainian custom, July 16, 2011. The U.S. pilots were there for SAFE SKIES 2011, a joint Ukraine, Poland and U.S. aerial exchange event.