Poland marked five years with the F-16 on 9 November 2011 with a celebration in Poznan, a city of 600,000 about 200 miles west of Warsaw. The event began with a celebratory Mass near the old city center at Adam Mickiewicz University. Then the crowd gathered on the market square near the university at noon when a formation of six F-16s sped by. The flyover was followed by a formal passing of the flag ceremony.
According to the Polish tradition, military bases receive their official flags from the local community. In this case, a new flag, representing the new F-16, was presented by Ryszard Grobelny, the mayor of Poznan. Col. Jacek Pszczola, the commander of the 31st Tactical Air Base, accepted the flag. Lt. Gen. Lech Majewski, the commander of the Polish Air Force, then welcomed the invited guests and local residents of Poznan to the celebration. Attendees were offered cups of traditional soldiers' pea soup and pieces of a 440-pound, F-16-shaped cake.
The celebration marked the delivery of the first Polish F-16 Fighting Falcons, which were flown to the 31st Tactical Air Base at Krzesiny, a suburb of Poznan, on 9 November 2006.
The Polish Air Force has accomplished a lot since those first F-16s arrived. The 31st TAB is now a fully functional F-16 base that is home to thirty-two F-16s operated by 3rd Fighter Squadron and the 6th Fighter Squadron. The remaining sixteen F-16s are assigned to the 32nd Tactical Air Base at Lask and are flown by 10th Fighter Squadron. Both bases fall under the 2nd Tactical Air Wing of the Polish Air Force.
The Polish F-16 program began well before the first F-16s arrived. Poland began looking for a replacement for its aging fleet of MiG-21 fighter and Su-22 ground attack aircraft in 1997. The Block 52+ F-16 was chosen in 2002 after an exhaustive competition that involved several other fourth-generation fighters. The contract, signed in April 2003, included forty-eight F-16s (thirty-six single-seat and twelve two-seat aircraft), spare engines, missiles, precision-guided munitions, pilot and maintenance technician training, and a multibillion-dollar offset program.
Polish F-16s are equipped with APG-68(V)9 radar, Advanced Integrated Defensive Electronic Warfare System, color moving map cockpit displays, Link 16, Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System, Sniper ER targeting pods, and DB-110 reconnaissance pods. The aircraft have provisions for conformal fuel tanks as well. Weapons include AIM-9X Sidewinder and AIM-120C AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon, and GBU-31 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition. This version of the F-16 is regarded as the most advanced F-16 in NATO.
The initial group of Polish pilots was selected in 2001 before the final aircraft decision was made. After English language training in 2003, the pilots began training in the F-16 with the Arizona Air National Guard training unit in Tucson in 2004.
The first Polish F-16 was flown for the first time on 14 March 2006 from Fort Worth, Texas. The aircraft was later sent to Edwards AFB, California, where it was used for weapon qualification testing. Deliveries continued through 11 December 2008, when the last of the forty-eight aircraft arrived in Poland.
Polish pilots and maintenance personnel came up to speed quickly with their new aircraft. For their first exercise, the Polish Air Force, or PolAF, deployed six F-16s to Bold Avenger at Karup AB in Denmark in September 2009. They have participated in numerous exercises and NATO training events since then.
Poland began operating a quick reaction alert with the new aircraft from both of its bases in January 2010. The same year, PolAF graduated its first class of F-16 pilots from its own basic training course, which is conducted by the 3rd Fighter Squadron at Krzesiny. The first NATO force evaluation, conducted on the 6th Fighter Squadron, came in September 2011. The unit passed the evaluation. Five Polish pilots have chalked up more than 1,000 hours in the F-16.
As the first former Warsaw Pact country to operate the F-16, Poland has set some high standards.
“The purchase of multirole fighters was part of Poland’s commitment as a NATO member,” explained the Honorable Marcin Idzik, Poland’s Undersecretary of State for Armament and Modernization. “F-16 aircraft, or more precisely the F-16 weapon system, beat some very strong competitors in the open tender in 2002. With ten years’ perspective, I can say that the F-16 was a very good choice.” Proof includes the program executing according to schedule, PolAF pilots and maintainers offering positive opinions, and our units participating successfully in a number of NATO exercises. Another confirmation of the good choice is that other countries have since bought F-16s in the same or similar configuration as Poland’s. “The community of F-16 users continues to grow.”
The Polish Air Force plans to send pilots, maintenance personnel, and its F-16s from the 2nd Air Tactical Wing to the United States in 2012 to participate in Red Flag exercises in Alaska. “This is a prestigious as well as one of the biggest and the most difficult military aviation exercises in the world,” said Lt. Gen. Lech Majewski, the Polish Air Force commander. “To be invited to this exercise is a great privilege, but also a tremendous responsibility. I am convinced that our pilots will meet the challenge and will proudly represent our country.”
The intense competition, the size of the contract, and the importance of being an effective NATO member put the program under extraordinary public scrutiny. “Many people were skeptical of the success of the program at first,” recalled Brig. Gen. Wlodzimierz Usarek, commander of 2nd Tactical Air Wing. “We always have supporters and opponents to new ideas. Our selection of the F-16 was no exception.”
Usarek, who himself was involved in the selection process, today enjoys showing his fellow countrymen that the F-16 program is a success and that the money spent on the fighters was well worth the purchase. “The F-16 program attracts people interested in modernizing our armed forces,” he said. “These people bring a sense of urgency and enthusiasm to their work.” Usarek also recognized the US advisors and technical staff who support the program. “We operate well together. Our team has performed beyond our expectations.”
Poland started from scratch in modernizing the 31st and 32nd air bases for the F-16. “Every other air base in Poland knows what we have accomplished with the F-16,” Usarek said. “We have set an excellent example of what can be done with modern equipment.” PolAF is in the process of being certified by NATO and readied to participate in NATO operations. “Five years from now,” he continued, “I would like to see other bases in Poland reach the same standards we are achieving with the 31st and 32nd Tactical Air Bases.”
“Undoubtedly, the F-16 program is a proud achievement for our air force and for our Ministry of National Defence,” Idzik added. “In a relatively short time, we have implemented a modern and complex weapon system while preserving a high level of flight safety and while providing a secure and stable environment for our F-16 pilots to perform their missions.”
Idzik gives credit to the country’s F-16 Program Bureau for much of the success. The bureau, which reports directly to the Ministry of National Defence, was established a month after the original contract was signed in 2003. Its main task is to manage the procurement process and the deliveries of aircraft, weapons, and support equipment. The bureau also coordinates all the training for pilots and maintenance technicians and oversees the modernization of infrastructure associated with the program.
“We are in a good place after five years,” said Andrzej Wasiewicz, director of the bureau. “The aircraft and spares are delivered, and we have all the necessary ground support equipment. The program is now moving from a delivery phase to a sustainment phase.” The current priorities for the Poland F-16 program are to keep the F-16s flying, train additional pilots up to the required ratio of 1.5 pilots per aircraft, and increase operational readiness.
Some of these priorities are being addressed directly by offset initiatives associated with the Polish F-16 program. An F-16 services center at a military depot in Bydgoszcz, northeast of Poznan, is one example. “Some parts affect our readiness rates because we have to ship them to the United States for repair,” noted Tadeusz Pieciukiewicz, deputy director of the F-16 program bureau. “These turnaround times should decrease significantly once we establish an indigenous depot-level repair capability.” That organic capability should be reached by 2016.
The service center in Bydgoszcz will focus initially on hydraulic, mechanical, and pneumatic systems and then expand to electrical systems and avionics.
Pilot training is another priority for the Polish Air Force. “Our current system for training pilots is not as efficient as we would like it to be,” explained Pieciukiewicz.
Polish pilots are trained at the Polish Air Force Academy in Deblin. Because winters tend to be harsh in Poland, student pilots spend the colder months in class and the warmer months in Polish-built trainers—the PZL-130 Orlik turboprop initially and then the TS-11 Iskra turbojet.
“Ideally upon graduation,” Pieciukiewicz continued, “new pilots should go directly to combat units to convert to combat aircraft. But we must send pilots transitioning to the F-16 to the United States for additional training first, which can take up to two years depending on the availability of training slots. Our training schedule is influenced by many factors out of our control.”
To address this issue, Poland is planning to modernize its pilot training with a new lead-in fighter and an advanced training system.
“We know from experience that the initial purchase of a fighter is the easiest step,” Idzik commented. “Implementing the logistics and training systems to support an entirely new weapon system for the long-term is much more challenging.” PolAF has a detailed support plan that goes through 2020. It is currently taking necessary actions to implement that plan.
In addition to dealing with new aircraft, new support equipment, and new facilities, PolAF also had to deal with its mindset. “Altering our mentality was a much larger challenge,” explained Usarek. “We had to change the way we operate aircraft and the way we train pilots and technicians. But we have adapted very well.”
Most Polish F-16 pilots are sent for English language instruction to the Defense Language Institute English Language Center at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas. The language instruction lasts from four to seven months depending on a pilot’s language proficiency. From the institute, they go through a basic flight and instrument course conducted in the T-38 Talon at several US bases. That course is followed by an introduction to a fighter fundamentals course, which is also conducted in the T-38. Most pilots are introduced to the F-16 at the 162nd Fighter Wing of the Arizona Air National Guard in Tucson.
Col. Dariusz Malinowski, commander of 32nd Tactical Air Base at Lask, was a member of the first group of six Polish pilots who went through the training process that began in 2005. “The most difficult part of the training for me involved operating the T-38,” he explained. “I was still getting comfortable understanding a new language and flying a new aircraft at the same time. To make things even more difficult, radio calls were in English with heavy Texas accents.”
Malinowski’s first flight in an F-16 occurred in 2004 a year before his T-38 training. The flight was part of an exchange visit of Texas Air National Guard F-16s to Lask Air Base. “Riding in the backseat, I didn’t have a clue about the various F-16 systems and avionics,” he recalled. “My first F-16 training flight in Tucson a year later was completely different. I flew from the front seat with a knowledge of the aircraft and a command of the language.”
After completing the basic F-16 course, Polish pilots at their operational units in Poland are exposed to capabilities unique to their Block 52+ F-16s. “Our F-16s handle much like the Vipers I trained on in Tucson,” noted Malinowski. “But the similarity ends there. Our Pratt & Whitney -229 engines are much more powerful. The extra power, combined with numerous advanced capabilities, makes our Block 52+ aircraft feel like entirely different fighters.”
As with other senior-ranking Polish pilots who were in the initial F-16 training classes for the Polish Air Force, Malinowski is a former MiG-21 pilot. He and his peers have gone on to accumulate more than 1,000 hours in the F-16. Today, junior-ranking officers are learning to fly the F-16 as their first operational fighter. Whether flight experience in a non-western fighter makes the training easier or more difficult is a topic of discussion.
“I think starting in the F-16 as a new pilot is the best way,” said Malinowski. “Changing habits can be difficult.”
Pilots transitioning from other aircraft have experience with tactics and flying basics. “That previous experience makes it easier than having to learn these skills for the first time in the basic course,” said Capt. Pawel Kowalczyk, a former Su-22 pilot who graduated in early 2011 from the first F-16 basic course conducted in Poland. “However, my air-to-air experience was limited because the Su-22 functions primarily as a bomber. Therefore, much of the air-to-air instruction was new to me.” Former MiG-21 and MiG-29 pilots, on the other hand, have to change their approach to basic fighter maneuvers. They have to unlearn some tactical habits. “So I’d say the training is difficult for different people for different reasons.”
Maj. Adam Wojcik, deputy commander of 6 Squadron at Krzesiny, is a former MiG-21 pilot and one of the first dozen Polish pilots chosen to fly the F-16. He was in the second group to go through the various training courses in the United States.
Wojcik flew the MiG-21 from 1995 to 2001, accumulating 300 flying hours. Flight durations were typically twenty to forty minutes. “The aircraft didn’t carry much fuel and its fuel consumption was very high,” he explained. “Fuel management was important. The most important gauge in the aircraft was the fuel gauge. Landings were touchy because the MiG did not have the fuel to make multiple approaches. Moreover, the MiG-21 wasn’t equipped with sophisticated avionics. The radar wasn’t good. The engine thrust-to-weight ratio was low. The aircraft had no flaps and wasn’t maneuverable. It was challenging to fly. Very unforgiving.”
Poland stopped flying the MiG-21 in 2003.
“We moved the MiGs that used to operate from our base to the ranges,” said Capt. Michal Kras, an F-16 pilot at the 10th FS at Lask. “We use them now as targets for air-to-ground training.”
Kras has accumulated more than 700 hours in his four years of flying the F-16. Polish F-16 pilots now accumulate the same number of hours per year as their NATO counterparts who operate the F-16. “We fly a lot more compared with Polish units flying other types of fighters,” Kras said. “Keeping proficient requires more time in the cockpit and in the simulator. Besides, the F-16 is much more available than the other fighters.”
That availability is supported by both the reliability of the F-16 and the capability of the maintenance force. Poland sent an initial group of maintainers to the United States for training in 2004. That group, in turn, trained and continues to train subsequent maintenance personnel in Poland at Deblin AB. The duration of the courses depends on the maintenance specialty, with most courses lasting about six months.
“Maintenance tasks can be done very quickly on the F-16,” said Capt. Adam Rosiakowski, a former Su-22 maintenance technician and now the lead crew chief at Krzesiny AB. “The aircraft is maintenance friendly. Elements that require regular attention are easier to access. Sixty percent of the panels on the F-16 are removable. That helps a lot.”
The F-16 has dramatically changed the Polish Air Force. Ten years ago, flying units were dedicated to prescribed missions. The multirole F-16 allows the air force to mix air-to-air and air-to-ground missions in a single unit.
“The aircraft has opened our minds to Western tactics, which are totally different from tactics we were flying ten years ago,” said Malinowski.
Back then, ground controllers had the most situational awareness, so that pilots functioned as tools of the ground controller. Today, F-16 pilots operate more independently. They have more flexibility to employ a wider range of weapons and tactics.
“The aircraft is easier to fly and far more capable, so situational awareness has replaced flying skills as the primary concern,” Malinowski added. “That makes us a much more effective force.”
The F-16 Bureau plans to continue to maintain and improve this effectiveness. “We want to keep the capabilities of our new fighters at the highest level,” said Wasiewicz. “We have to build and upgrade our stock of weapons. In addition, we plan to upgrade our flight software and subsystems. We are improving our training system by upgrading and networking our F-16 simulators.”
“Our program for implementing the F-16 into our air force ends in 2013,” added Majewski. “That means that all components of the implemented system—personnel, infrastructure, logistics, technical, and combat support systems—will be ready next year.”
Polish pilots and maintenance technicians are prepared. The first NATO assignment for Poland’s F-16s will depend on politics and on world events, not on the readiness or quality of their personnel or aircraft. The Polish Air Force should have many more anniversaries to celebrate with its F-16.