America’s stars and stripes and Arizona’s lone copper star always wave proudly at the Arizona Air National Guard’s 162nd Wing.
But it’s the adjacent flags of coalition-partners – from the pacific island-nations of Far East Asia, to the NATO countries of the old Europe and new ones in the Middle-East – that remind Guard Airmen the global reach of their unit.
“The strategic value of the 162nd Wing’s International Training Program cannot be overstated,” said Col. Phil Purcell, wing commander for the largest training unit in the Air Guard. “Building Partnership Capacity is a priority for the U.S. – not only to increase partner capabilities abroad, but to build long-term relationships.”
And it’s the F-16 Fighting Falcon that symbolizes security cooperation with the more than 40 countries that have sent their pilots to the southern Arizona desert.
“With the F-16 being such a common platform across our allies and partners, the superior training provided by the Arizona National Guard is a key enabler for that vision, and overall national interests,” Purcell added.
Called “Viper” by its American and foreign pilots, the Fighting Falcon is a mainstay in global air force circles. Its ushering into the inventory of the U.S. Air Force during the late 1970s confirmed a new wave of aerial warfare. A little more than a decade later, the Dutch would be the first to send their young air-cadets to the wing’s F-16 Schoolhouse.
Though allied-nations share a commitment to achieving peace in the world and prosperity at home – cultural barriers are an unavoidable reality at times, but nothing that trainees can’t successfully negotiate, according to Maj. Aaron Wildman.
“I am continuously amazed by our student-pilot’s abilities to absorb instructions in English, and then spit it back out in English, all the while impressing an instructor pilot,” said Wildman, who now serves as the Assistant Director of Operations for the 152nd Fighter Squadron.
Having a strong command of a host-nation’s language, however, is just the beginning in a student-pilot’s journey to commanding a world-class, fighter jet. Initial instruction involves learning the basics of aviation with trainer-designated aircraft from Air Force units in Texas.
From that point, they make their way to Tucson, immersing themselves into incremental phases that surround the transition from trainer-jet to fighter-jet, and culminating with the fighter fundamentals of air-to-air engagements and air-to-surface attacks.
“The focus is on the tactical portion, and how these tactics support the strategy of making a country’s air force stronger,” explained Wildman. The entire instructional process, he said, including the implementation of a training syllabus, generally requires a commitment of about four years from visiting wingmen.
“The 162nd Wing is the last leg of U.S. training before they go back home. They’ve trained long and hard to get here – to fly their own sorties,” said 1st Lt. Melissa Gonzalez, officer-in-charge of the International Military Student Office (IMSO). “You can see their drive and enthusiasm.”
Her office’s contribution to the training mission is simple: focus on administrative tasking, and let the students focus on flying.
“On day one in training, they (student-pilots) need to be in academics – ready to learn – not having to worry about anything else, like housing issues, out-processing and in-processing orders, medical payments if needed,” she said.
In addition to building a mission-capable pilot, Chief of Safety Lt. Col. Jeff Waterbury believes that inspiring intangible items to foreign students serves a vital diplomatic function as well.
“We convey to them our brand of professionalism, and what duty, honor and country mean to this wing,” he said. “It’s just as important as training them to be pilots.”