Feeling the Pinch

July 1, 2011

Four F-16s roll out onto the runway and light their afterburners for takeoff; three more are awaiting clearance to taxi; another four are being armed with practice munitions; and another quartet is about to land. Another 50 or so Fighting Falcons—though most prefer the nickname “Vipers”—populate sun shelters on the apron, as maintenance crews scurry around prepping them for missions or performing standard checks.

This is Luke AFB, Ariz., home to the Air Force’s largest and busiest fighter wing. The scene playing out is not that of a unit at war, but the standard pace of training; the base launches upward of 150 sorties most days of the year. Although it seems a veritable beehive of activity, for Luke’s 56th Fighter Wing, the base has become uncharacteristically calm as of late.

Lt. Col. Ken Ashley breaks away from the 309th Fighter Squadron flagship, flown by Lt. Col. Stephane Wolfgeher, during a training mission over the Barry Goldwater Range Complex in Arizona. (Photo by Jim Haseltine)

With the drawdown of F-16s in the combat air force, “Luke is a little quieter,” admitted Brig. Gen. Jerry D. Harris Jr., 56th Fighter Wing commander.

“There’s a lot less flying going on than there has been in the past,” Harris said in April, calling the base a “sleepy hollow.” Luke recently lost 63 F-16s—a third of its force—dropping from 201 fighters to 138. Even so, Harris is quick to point out the 56th is still the largest fighter wing in the Air Force.

“When I tell people that Luke’s a ‘sleepy hollow,’ that’s still putting 130, 150 sorties up every day,” he noted. Compared to most wings’ 60 to 70 sorties daily, Luke remains easily twice as busy as a typical Air Force fighter wing.

100 Pilots Per Year

If all goes to plan, though, Luke stands to lose two more fighter squadrons. Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico was left without a fighter mission after USAF decided to strip it of its F-22s. To fill the gap, two of the 56th Fighter Wing’s four training squadrons are preparing to pack up and move to Holloman over the coming months. The squadrons will stay under the command of Luke’s 56th, but the population on base will decline to four squadrons—practically barren by Luke standards.

Harris said, “For us to drop down to 80 [aircraft], that is an impact—that’s thousands of people that have left Luke and moved somewhere else” due to the base realignment process and the combat air forces reduction, called the CAF redux for short.

Luke is the longtime home of F-16 initial training and provides specialized instruction in all variations of the Falcon art. Thunderbird demonstration pilots start here, as do aggressor pilots, and senior leaders come for refresher courses in the F-16. While the wing has tried to cope with the loss of aircraft through wise use of resources, the move is not without cost, and pilot production is lagging demand.

“We shoot to generate about 72 basic B course students per year, but we’re a little less than that this year and for [Fiscal 2012] because of the Holloman transfers,” said Lt. Col. Charles J. DeLapp, commander of the 56th Training Squadron at Luke.

“We can’t give those guys a 10-month course and have them move at the same time,” explained DeLapp, who oversees academics for the wing. Already with 33 percent fewer aircraft, Luke manages to fly 80 percent of its previous flight schedule. Demand for pilots remains high: Over the past few years, the Air Force has steadily requested around 100 new F-16 pilots per year.

This year, “we’ve been able to produce around 70, so a little deficit there compared to the requirements,” noted DeLapp.

Luke is working to find ways to boost production, but with fewer F-16s, “we’re pretty much at maximum capacity unless we start reducing the [flight] syllabus,” he added. With almost perfect weather, there is little room for growth in terms of flying days.

Maj. Brandon McBrayer checks for his wingman on a training sortie. He is wearing the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System. (Photo by Jim Haseltine)

At one point, pilots at Luke flew six-day weeks because they had fewer aircraft, as one squadron was grounded for bulkhead cracks. Long term, however, “it becomes pretty tough for guys,” DeLapp conceded.

Training new F-16 pilots accounts for 70 percent of flight operations on the base, but Luke’s squadrons also qualify instructors, convert pilots from other airframes, and teach forward air controllers. The instructors even introduce would-be F-22 pilots to air refueling and the brutality of 9+ Gs in an F-16 two-seater before turning them loose in a single-seat Raptor.

Despite the lull, base leaders believe Luke’s confluence of excellent weather, plenty of reserved training airspace, supportive local communities, and close proximity to multiple training ranges will guarantee its future.


“We have such a fantastic community surrounding the West Valley, we have the world’s best training airspace with the Barry Goldwater training complex and the military operating areas that are to the northwest, and the fantastic weather associated with Arizona. … We can fly 330 days of the year,” said Harris.

Undoubtedly, those reasons persuaded USAF to pick Luke as a preferred alternative site for F-35 training last year. While it’s a vote of confidence for the base, there are no guarantees that F-35s will bed down in Arizona. The F-35 will definitely have an effect on the base, however, as the increasing delay in bringing the strike fighter into operational service extends the demand for F-16 pilots.

“I’m pretty confident that the Air Force is going to be flying the F-16 for decades into the future, … so we have a valid amount and type of training that will go on for awhile,” Harris asserted.

At the training squadrons, the pace is anything but sleepy. Students, instructors, and aircraft are pushed relentlessly to perform at the highest level. In the 309th Fighter Squadron, the challenge to students, especially “B coursers,” is the most obvious.

Straight from undergraduate training in the T-38, 1st Lt. Jonathan Kay soloed an F-16 for the first time last year.

“I was drenched in sweat, but I was smiling ear to ear,” said Kay, grinning at the thought. Sitting at the end of the runway was “a combination of ‘This is awesome,’ and ‘Boy, I hope I don’t do anything stupid,’ ” he recalled. In less than eight months, Kay progressed from takeoff, landing, and managing simple emergencies in the F-16 to selecting targets with a LANTIRN pod in simulated ground attacks.

Quick mastery of skills is essential. After 23 days of ground and simulator instruction, students are handed off to one of four USAF squadrons flying at Luke, such as the 309th Fighter Squadron—known as “Mad Mallards.” Momentum builds quickly: In 145 days, students like Kay fly an average of 62 sorties, punctuated with academic prep and 44 simulator sessions.

Prepped and ready to go, an F-16 of the 309th Fighter Squadron awaits a training sortie in a shaded shelter at Luke. (Staff photo by Aaron Church)

“Last week, I stepped [to an aircraft] five times [and] flew four [sorties], so there’s just enough time to take what I learned from that last flight, try to incorporate it into the next one, and be ready to go again,” observed Kay. From planning to debrief, a sortie takes about seven hours, leaving little time for reflection.

Reading up on infrared theory between a simulator session and a class, Kay was mentally a day ahead, even on a nonflying day.

“They talk about being a pit bull on a leash,” Kay said, preparing for his first laser guided bomb drop the next day. “I want to get out there; I want to fly this. … I don’t want to stop. I don’t want to lose my momentum,” he said.

With a mere six sorties in the F-16, students pass an instrument check ride and move to basic fighter maneuvers. Immediately, this knowledge is put to use in the air-to-air phase. Flying as an instructor’s wingman, students tangle with multiple opponents in a series of dogfights of escalating difficulty.

Ordnance on Libya

In the final air-to-ground phase, Kay and his classmates will learn to fly with night vision goggles, drop six live 500-pound bombs, one inert LGB, one inert Joint Direct Attack Munition, fire 6,500 rounds of 20 mm cannon shells, and expend “a bunch of training ordnance,” noted DeLapp.

At the tail end of the B course, students must pass a basic suppression of enemy air defenses course module, easing the transition to SEAD-tasked units.

“When we kick them out of here, they are almost ready to go to combat,” emphasized DeLapp.

These are no idle words—a 309th FS “Duck” was recently reassigned to Aviano AB, Italy. Arriving on base, he “got through his mission qualification, had his mission check ride, [and the] very next day was dropping ordnance in Libya,” DeLapp related.

Luke is a challenging environment for instructor pilots as well. With top quality instructors “stacked up like cordwood,” DeLapp said, the bar is high.

“Our middle-of-the-road instructor would be the best at unit A or unit B,” said DeLapp. “When you get them all in one spot, it becomes a little bit of a challenge to tell a guy, ‘Yeah, you’re doing great!’”

Luke is not a “cutthroat” environment, but it demands more of an instructor than a typical unit. Since instructors and students usually fly in separate aircraft, an instructor at Luke must be able to simultaneously handle his aircraft and manage a wingman.

“I’m still pilot in command, … [but] it’s now looking over my shoulder to see what the student is doing,” explained Capt. Cesar Orozco, evaluations instructor with the 309th Fighter Squadron.

Students fly six to nine sorties in a dual-seat F-16D as well, usually as an introduction to dogfighting or ground attack. As a result, Luke IPs are some of the few in the Air Force who qualify to land F-16s from the back seat. “You don’t get to see as much out the front,” chuckled DeLapp. In the F-16D, you have to “touch and feel to find your way to the runway,” he noted.

Nurturing students requires a new level of restraint in the instructors as well. Unlike in a combat environment, mistakes—when not life-threatening—are educational.

“If I think it can wait, I don’t get in the student’s chili,” emphasized Orozco. “If I don’t need to tell them right now, ‘This is what you need to do,’ then that can wait [until the] debrief.”

For instructors, the reward comes from the success of their students. “When they’re doing well and it’s because of you, … that feels good,” Orozco said. “There’s some sense of pride when you go, ‘Hey, he’s using my technique and he’s doing well at it.’ “

Luke is hard on its aircraft. Stripped of panels during 400-hour phase inspection, a 309th F-16’s threadbare tires are normal. Students at the base fly some of the oldest F-16s in the Air Force; some are still Block 25 A models.

Capt. Tim Lawlor, an instructor pilot, walks 2nd Lt. Ryan Stott through the maneuvers they will fly later in the day during a training sortie. From planning to debrief, a training mission takes about seven hours. (Photo by Jim Haseltine)

Nevertheless, Harris boasted that Luke maintains “mission capable rates [on F-16s] as if they were new airplanes.”

Luke’s oldest F-16s will “start to fade away” beginning in 2013, said Harris. Before then, a plan is in the works to replace the base’s most weary airframes with F-16s of the same block, albeit with fewer hours.

“They’ll look the same, but they’ll have about 2,000 hours less flight time,” stretching Luke’s F-16 pool another six to 10 years, by Harris’ estimation.

“They’re flying as hard as they’ve ever flown,” he said of the airplanes, but “our students are the same. Sometimes they have hard landings, sometimes they touch down in the overrun or do other things, so we’re not easy on the airplane in a training environment.”

Harris’ conversation was interrupted by an urgent radio call: An F-16 had just ingested a bird near taxiway Alpha, but remained intact.

“Speaking of!” said Harris, acknowledging the call. “Old airplanes—they’re still doing very well surviving bird strikes and things like that.”