Student pilots at Luke Air Force Base are learning important skills and combat tactics essential to flying and fighting at night.
Training to master nighttime operations enables a pilot to utilize a vast set of tools and strategies to increase their lethality in combat situations.
“Night flying requires more detailed attention,” said Maj. Michael Blauser, 310th FS director of operations. “It requires repetition and practice which ensures you’re proficient as well as safe. Your ability to fly during the day is not a transferable skill to the night.”
While nighttime air combat operations are a crucial aspect of current U.S. military doctrine, this wasn’t always the case.
“During the Vietnam War, the enemy owned the night,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Gaetke, 56th Operations Support Squadron director of operations and F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot. “Thousands of pounds of supplies moved through infiltration routes to insurgents in South Vietnam because we were unable to effectively interdict at night.”
Since then, nighttime air combat operations have proven successful in numerous engagements such as the war on terror and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today’s night training takes the experience gleaned from past conflicts and combines it with advanced modern technology and a thorough training regimen in order to craft capable and well-rounded pilots.
“Night vision goggles, infrared pointers and consistent night training ensure we own the night now,” Gaetke said. “Training with these systems allow us to maintain proficiency and not forfeit the night to the other side.”
Night training occurs in two blocks during the eight-month training cycle of student pilots in the 310th FS. Each block lasts between two and four weeks.
Blauser said the training is based on a crawl, walk and run mentality.
The first block introduces the pilots to proper use of night vision goggles, basic night flying, single-ship instrument flying, tactical intercepts, and basic nighttime air-to-air combat techniques. The second block teaches them advanced nighttime air-to-air and air-to-ground combat techniques that simulate the types of engagements they might face today.
“We never know when the call is going to come or what time of day a combat situation may occur,” Blauser said.
In order to mitigate the amount of disturbance night flying might cause for local communities, pilots who fly at night use changed flight patterns and practice locations.
“We use noise abatement techniques and draw our training away from surrounding communities as much as we can,” Blauser said. “We try to practice our approaches away from Luke whenever the opportunity presents itself.”
Gaetke said that, despite the possibility of noise, night flying is essential to training combat-ready warfighters.
“It is absolutely crucial to maintain night training,” he said. “We can’t win for our country if we’re limited to fighting in the day.”
The instructors of the 310th know that preparedness means being ready at all times, which is why they teach their students to fly regardless of how dark it is outside.
“In order to train the world’s greatest F-16 pilots, we teach our students to operate day or night, under any weather condition, no matter what happens in order to get the mission done,” Blauser said. “We need to make sure they are prepared for everything.”