White Sands "Vipers" - Training F-16 fighter pilots at Holloman AFB

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Scott Fredrick, 311th Fighter Squadron commander
  • 49 Wing Public Affairs
Last Thursday was a significant day in not only the 54 FG's history, but for all of Team Holloman and the local area.  We began flying F-16 Basic Course (B-course) student sorties here at Holloman AFB, their first step in becoming part of the Combat Air Forces (CAF).  We are proud to add F-16 training to the 49th WG motto "COMBAT AIRPOWER STARTS HERE!"  This single event is the culmination of the efforts of hundreds of people and multiple organizations and marks the beginning of the 54 FG's primary mission.  Like other F-16 formal training units (FTU) locations before us (Luke AFB, Macdill AFB), we will continue the FTU mission of "creating the world's best F-16 pilots" by preparing them for the rigors of being a single-seat fighter pilot.  Typically, a student would fly with an Instructor Pilot (IP) in the rear cockpit for their first four or five flights and then go "Solo", but not anymore!  Unlike all of the Viper pilots that have gone before them, many of our student's first flights in the F-16 was also their "Solo" flight. 

The F-16 has been flown for more than 35 years, and until recently the US has trained thousands of Viper pilots roughly the same way; however, earlier this year, over 95% of AETC's D-Model (two seat trainer aircraft) fleet was grounded due to metal fatigue cracks on a major support structure between the front and rear cockpits called a longeron.  These longeron cracks are under repair, but until those repairs are complete, we will continue to train new pilots for the CAF using only our single-seat aircraft.  The newly implemented C-Model (single-seat) syllabus that the 311 FS students began last week will allow training to continue.   Our training methodologies will remain constant with the major difference being that many of our students will now fly a C-Model F-16 on their initial training sorties.  In the past, new F-16 pilots had an Instructor Pilot (IP) in the rear cockpit to mitigate much of the risk associated with learning to fly a high performance fighter.  Pressure is an effective motivator and they have all stepped up to the challenge of the new training.  What is the big deal, right... the A-10 has been doing this for years? 

Our new challenge is to prepare a student not only to fly the aircraft by themselves on their first sortie but to be prepared to handle any emergency that might happen without the benefit of having an experienced IP with them in the rear cockpit.  "Murphy's Law" is constantly in the back of my mind with our new F-16 pilots...if it can happen, it will probably happen at the worst possible time.  A pilot's preparation for the unexpected is the only thing that will help them deal with these unplanned and potentially catastrophic events.  This preparation began in late August when our students started the academics portion of their training in the 54 OSS.  Our instructors (military and civilian) have provided them with weeks of aircraft system academics and simulator sorties to expose them to how the aircraft flies and what to do with an aircraft malfunction.  There is significant joy in having the ability to operate a high performance aircraft by yourself, and there is even more satisfaction in knowing that you can deal with the unexpected issues that inevitably arise in the flying business.

Their next six months will be an intense training environment that will provide the foundation for what will be asked of these young officers throughout their careers as fighter pilots.  All of our pilots have completed undergraduate pilot training and received their wings.  Now their task is to learn how to employ the F-16 as an effective wingman which is the building block of all of our combat tactics.  They will initially go through the "transition" phase of training where they will learn how to fly their new aircraft.  They will learn how to prepare their body and mind for the stresses of flying a single-seat aircraft capable of pulling 9 G's and being forced to solve problems at 500+ MPH.  The ability to foresee problems and apply the appropriate tactic at those speeds is a unique challenge that takes a very capable and well trained pilot.  Once they have learned how to fly the airplane (less than ten sorties), we will them teach them how to employ it.  They will learn to "dogfight" against another aircraft, and as soon as they figure that out we add more aircraft to the scenario.  They will learn to fly in formation and use the firepower of both their aircraft and their wingman to increase their lethality and survivability in modern warfare.  We will teach them how to drop a multitude of different weapons from basic training bombs to full scale 2000 lb "live bombs" on the ranges near Holloman.  They will conclude their training with Large Force Exercises consisting of 10-20 aircraft including tankers, Airborne Surveillance platforms and adversaries who are trying to shoot them down.  Once they prove their mettle in the training environment, we will send these young pilots off to CAF bases around the world and into harm's way.

Becoming a F-16 fighter pilot takes nearly two years of training and is a significant achievement that takes a special mindset.  That mindset requires you to be prepared to make a split second decision that could have life or death consequences for yourself or others in the air and on the ground.  Part of that mindset knows that your "day in the office" has no guarantees and that in some cases bad things happen to good people who were doing everything right.  In terms of combat, there are no second chances.  You are either the pilot who will survive the engagement by destroying the other aircraft or you are a fireball.   More likely, these young pilots will be asked to drop bombs in close proximity to friendly troops to keep them safe, and that is an exact science with little room for error.  It has been a long time since the dogfights that created the fighter pilot mindset, but it is still the mindset we demand from our young wingman.