The 308th Fighter Squadron has more than 45 pilots who are dedicated to the training and certification of F-16 Fighting Falcon pilots. But the FS only gets the new pilots after they have already been through officer training and initial flight training.
“We’re responsible for taking the new lieutenants that show up fresh out of pilot training and teach them how to become F-16 pilots,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Bacon, 308th FS commander. “We also take the Airmen from Air Staff who are no longer qualified and senior leaders who need to requalify on the jet.”
The courses that pilots go through are syllabus driven, meaning all of the flights have preplanned requirements, known to the pilots as “asterisks items,” due to an asterisk put by each line item. Managing the pilots falls to the squadron’s flight commanders.
“The pilots, both new and old, get similar training,” said Capt. Rolf Tellefsen, 308th FS Charlie Flight commander. “I have a group of 12 instructor pilots, and in a year we get upward of 100 students coming through the squadron.”
The pilots attend 350 hours of academic courses and must endure at least six months of flying sorties four to five times a week. In that time, they have many lessons to learn.
The IPs start with teaching new pilots the basics of how to fly and land the aircraft. They follow with air-to-air, offensive and defensive maneuvers, and high-aspect flights eventually transitioning to learning to employ their radar, run intercepts and perform long-range missile employment. They learn to “fight their way in, drop bombs and fight their way out” during some of the final missions.
“It’s pretty challenging to do that,” Tellefsen said. “It keeps us on our toes since it is a wide variety of things to teach.”
Each training sortie lasts an average of 1.3 hours, but can last upward of two-and-a-half hours. One to two hours in the aircraft may seem like a short time for the pilot, but that time is spent under pressure, both physically and figuratively.
Pilots routinely put themselves through four to nine Gs. What this means is that their bodies are subjected to four to nine times the force of Earth’s gravity, causing them to feel that many times heavier. This pressure causes the blood to leave the brain and other vital organs and move into lower extremities like the feet. The maneuvers required to stay conscious require a lot of strength.
“I work out at least four to five times a week,” Tellefsen said. “The level of muscular strength needed for pulling Gs, maintaining consciousness during the G-strain, and the aerobic side needed to last the distance of the mission is significant. You don’t want your body failing and unable to pull Gs late in the mission.”
On top of the physical strain, the pilots are subjected to a mental barrage while flying.
“It is a constant stream of thoughts,” Bacon said. “Navigating, flying in the right direction, calculating fuel, checking your wingman’s gas, target studies; it is one of the most physically and mentally exhausting jobs I’ve ever been associated with.”
But, most pilots agree, it’s all worth the demanding training when they deploy to a combat situation and help save the lives of service members on the ground.
“I think one the toughest missions I ever flew was the first day of Operation Anaconda,” Bacon said. “My wingman and I were on scene when the Army got pinned down. It ended up being a 13-hour sortie that day. We cleaned off the rails, meaning we dropped all of our bombs. Almost every single bomb we dropped was in close proximity to Army troops and Airmen fighting on the ground. It was an emotionally exhausting day.
“It was frustrating from my perspective,” he said, “because we couldn’t help everybody. We were just a single two-ship trying to support the Army effort going down on the ground. One of the greatest roles a pilot can play is supporting the troops on the ground.”
The pilots of the U.S. Air Force work to complete the missions assigned to them. They undergo rigorous training and must maintain themselves physically.
“I’m proud of the type of professional individuals I work with every day,” Bacon said. “I’m proud to be part of the Luke team and a member of the Emerald Knights. Strength and honor!”