When Airmen move overseas they experience a new culture, but still have the air base to offer a taste of home; however, this is not the case for exchange pilots who come to the U.S. to fly with the Air Force.
Maj. Jimmy Kjelsgaard, 62nd Fighter Squadron Royal Danish air force exchange officer, and his family, saw the exchange program as an awesome opportunity to experience something different. Upon arrival, they immediately found great support from their unit and became friends with a Portuguese exchange family, who could relate to their situation.
â€œThe biggest change is on the family side,â€ Kjelsgaard said. â€œMy kids go to an American school and had to start learning English and find new friends. Our family and Danish friends were suddenly very far away and help was no longer just around the corner.â€
Despite the adjustments needed at home, he has enjoyed the past year at Luke and sees the exchange program as a great way to increase understanding between foreign militaries.
â€œThe exchange program is a bilateral agreement in order to enhance interoperability between allies,â€ Kjelsgaard said. â€œNormally it is an exchange between the same weapon platforms, like the F-16. Both countries learn how procedures, tactics and techniques are developed and employed differently which increases mutual understanding. The tour lengths vary from country to country, but my tour is three years.â€
Apart from the always-great weather and slightly different tactics and techniques, the flying is not much different from what Kjelsgaard is used to back home. However, what does stand out is the sheer size difference between the two air forces.
Denmark has only 5.5 million inhabitants and the RDAF has one fighter wing with two fighter squadrons and less than 100 fighter pilots.
â€œItâ€™s a small community and all the fighter pilots know each other,â€ Kjelsgaard said. â€œWith such a small air force we donâ€™t have all the specialized assets like tankers and radar aircraft. However, the short chain of command makes alignment easier.â€
With so few pilots, the selection process has many phases of qualification testing, and training can take upward of six years from the first day of boot camp.
All soldiers, from enlisted to officers, in Denmark start out as ordinary recruits. After six months they are promoted to sergeant and those who are selected to be pilots start a six-month flying course. The flying course consists of flying and academics and is built to ensure the students will be able to cope with upcoming academics and requirements of being a pilot.
â€œIf you pass the course, you will attend the academy for two years to become an officer,â€ Kjelsgaard said. â€œThe academy ends with a promotion to second lieutenant and all the pilots are then sent for pilot education in the U.S. or Canada, depending on whether youâ€™re selected for fighters, transports or helicopters.â€
After the final portion of training is completed, the pilots earn their wings and they return to Denmark for aircraft specific conversion training and are then assigned to a front line squadron.
While there are differences in where and how the pilots are trained, the qualifications to become an exchange program instructor pilot are practically the same as in the U.S.
Kjelsgaard explained that all the pilots who apply for the exchange will be weighed, balanced and selected by the RDAF headquarters. This specific exchange program aims for an instructor pilot, so an experienced four-ship flight lead is a requirement. He also said that other requirements like language skills and an extended background check for security clearance is needed as well, but is more of a formality since his prior flight training in the U.S. had the same requirements.
It has been 19 years since Kjelsgaard started his first day at boot camp, and he still remembers how he felt drawn to the military as a child.
â€œI lived in a town that had an army headquarters, and whenever there was a big North Atlantic Treaty Organization exercise, the sky would be swarming with military jets and helicopters, which just fueled my fascination,â€ Kjelsgaard said. â€œThe experience has been great so far. Initially it was hard work for the whole family but a great opportunity for all of us to see and experience the U.S.â€
The 56th Fighter Wing has many opportunities for foreign officers to serve with the U.S. Air Force. Currently, the wing has exchange program officers from Chile, Germany, Portugal, Demark and Ecuador, with two more arriving in June from Japan and Belgium.
â€œItâ€™s great to have Kjelsgaard in the squadron,â€ said Lt. Col. Brian Jackson, 62nd Fighter Squadron commander. â€œHe brings a wealth of unique and diverse experiences that expand the knowledge and abilities of the other instructor pilots in the squadron.â€