Over European castles, Middle Eastern deserts and Pacific islands, F-16 fighter pilots are soaring in ever-increasing numbers.
Their experiences, nationalities and cultures are different, but they share several common bonds. They are partners, they are friends and they learned to fly their F-16s at the Air National Guard base at Tucson International Airport.
With more nations adding the F-16 to their inventories, the need for pilot training increases, and air force pilots from all over the world are traveling to the 162nd Wing to learn to fly the multipurpose fighter.
“Our primary goal for international pilot training is to build a foundation that will enable us all to carry out operations as coalition partners,” said Col. Phil Purcell, wing commander. “And this wing has the people, equipment and experience to do just that.”
Roughly 1,450 Arizona Air Guardsmen here maintain and operate 64 F-16s for the purpose of training aspiring fighter pilots from the United States and current partners Singapore, Poland, Norway, Japan, Iraq and the Netherlands.
“Over the last 25 years, the wing has trained more than 2,000 graduates from 28 nations. It’s a mission we know very well,” said Purcell. As senior leaders often point out, enhancing the air capabilities of other nations is an undertaking of the utmost significance in the current world environment, he said.
From the highest levels of the Department of Defense, leaders are directing efforts to develop the air forces of partner nations.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel emphasized the importance of international training during a lecture at the Center for Strategic Studies Global Security Forum, Nov. 5, 2013, in Washington D.C.
“In the face of reduced defense budgets and new challenges, our defense institutions must be reshaped to assure our military’s continuing capacity, capability, and readiness. That includes a continued focus on capacity-building for our allies and partners, and working closely with them and through alliances.” he said.
To advance the initiative, the 162nd Wing trains more than 70 international student pilots per year, offering several training programs that range from initial F-16 training to qualify new pilots to an advanced weapons course.
The syllabus each country follows is tailored to meet the specific needs of each air force. Some require more air-to-ground training, some are air-to-air focused and some want both – and they may add flight lead upgrade training or instructor qualification for certain students.
The initial training course, for example, is six-to-eight months in duration and carries the largest number of students.
“By the time an initial student pilot arrives in Tucson, he already has his pilot wings and he’s graduated from the Defense Language Institute for language training so we can be sure he knows how to fly and how to communicate in English,” said Col. Jeff Butler, an instructor pilot and the unit’s operations group commander. “Our job is to start the student out in the F-16 from square one.”
Butler attributes the wing’s training success to several factors.
“First and foremost, the 162nd has an unparalleled safety record because our maintenance personnel here average 18 years of experience specializing on the F-16,” said the colonel. “That instills confidence in the nations we train.”
Adding to the secure feeling of flying aircraft from one of the safest F-16 fleets in the world is the freedom afforded by Arizona’s plentiful ranges.
“We consider our ranges to be national treasures. There are very few places in the world with this kind of airspace for military training,” Butler said.
The Barry Goldwater Range in southwest Arizona consists of 2.7 million acres of relatively undisturbed Sonoran Desert. Overhead are 57,000 cubic miles of airspace where fighter pilots can practice air-to-air maneuvers and engage simulated battlefield targets on the ground.
“Finally, we average 17,000 flying hours per year, and we’re able to do that because of Arizona’s year-round flying weather. Less than 3 percent of scheduled sorties here are canceled due to weather… that’s practically unheard of in other parts of the world,” he said.
All of these elements add up to optimal flight-training conditions which allow the wing’s cadre of 80 instructor pilots to execute an aggressive training schedule.
“The students get the best possible flight education when they come here,” said Colonel Purcell. “Our pilots average 10 years of instructor time and 2,400 flying hours in the F-16.”
Airmen here take great pride in their mission, said Purcell, and they see the big picture.
“On its most basic level, it’s about flying together, operating together and training together, so if we have to, we can fight together. On a deeper level, it’s about friendships. With more than 4,000 F-16s in operation around the world, creating the foundation of a relationship is absolutely invaluable,” he said.