F-16 Pilot Training At The 149th Fighter Wing At Lackland AFB, San Antonio

By Eric Hehs Posted 29 February 2012

The 149th Fighter Wing, the Texas Air National Guard unit located at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, trains both active duty and Air National Guard F-16 pilots in a variety of courses, from a basic course for new F-16 pilots recently graduated from undergraduate pilot training to a requalification course for experienced pilots.

“The 149th may be a Guard unit, but most of our students are active duty Air Force pilots,” explained Col. John Kane, commander of the 149th. “Guard and active duty students go through the same training, whether they receive it from instructors at Luke AFB in Arizona or from instructors at Lackland.”

The student composition of a recent basic course, or B-course, at the 149th supports Kane’s point—eight students represent the active duty and one represents the Guard. The active duty-to-Guard ratio, usually about ten-to-one, reflects the overall training demands for the two organizations.

About fifty pilots go through F-16 training at the 149th every year. The B-course, which runs from September through May, accounts for ten to twelve students. An F-16 transition course accounts for thirty students in three classes per year. The transition course, lasting about six weeks and occurring roughly three times every year, is designed for F-16 pilots who have been out of the cockpit for an extended period. The course is also used for pilots who are transitioning to the F-16 from different fighters.

Another five to ten pilots per year go through one of two types of instructor pilot upgrade courses. One course is geared for new instructor pilots who will be teaching at the 149th. The other course is designed for instructor pilots who will be going back to their operational squadrons. Both courses last about eight weeks.

A senior officer course, conducted four times throughout the year, accounts for the remaining students. The one-month course consists of four to six flights. It is designed to qualify senior officers to fly the F-16. Pilots chosen for US Air Force Test Pilot School, but who are not current in the F-16, also take this course.

B-Course Basics

The F-16 B-course turns students fresh out of undergraduate pilot training into F-16 pilots ready to report to operational units.

“Getting used to the hands-on throttle and stick controls and to the avionics is the most difficult aspect for me so far,” said Lt. Conor Rook, a B-course student who will be heading to the 113th FW, the District of Columbia Air National Guard unit at JB Andrews, Maryland, after he graduates in May 2012. “The F-16 sidestick was easy to get used to. But operating the radar and the other sensors and incorporating all of them into my crosschecks were the most challenging aspects of learning to fly the F-16 so far. The training has been tough and demanding, mentally and physically. We have to take in a lot of information, all of it new.”

“I didn’t know what to expect,” added Lt. Jake Lowrie, another B-course student who completed his undergraduate pilot training at Sheppard AFB in Texas. “We’re not just learning how to fly the F-16. We’re learning how to employ it as a weapon system. The most difficult aspect of the training is the amount of material we have to absorb. The scope of the instruction at Lackland is much broader and deeper than we encountered in previous pilot training courses. We are learning how to operate the F-16, and we are also studying how potential adversary aircraft perform.”

Students spend the first month of the nine-month B-course in classrooms and in simulators. A team of instructors from Lockheed Martin conducts this initial ground training phase. The instructors use simulators to teach basic flying and emergency procedures. These fundamentals are followed by tactical topics that cover operating the aircraft’s avionics and employing the F-16 as a weapon system.

After ground training, students fly the F-16 for the first time in transition training. This phase, which runs about three weeks, consists of ten F-16 sorties. Students fly their first three sorties from the front seat of a two-seat F-16 with an instructor pilot in the back seat. They fly solo beginning with their fourth sortie and lasting for most of the other sorties during the remainder of their training. Transition training covers takeoffs, landings, and instrument flying. Students also fly at night with NVGs at the end of this phase.

Transition training is followed by an air-to-air phase, which also lasts about fourteen weeks. It consists of about twenty-five flights. The first ten flights involve basic fighter maneuvers. Students fly against a single aerial adversary from offensive, defensive, and high-aspect, or head-on, positions.

These ten transition flights are followed by three flights of air combat maneuvering in which students fly as wingmen in a two-ship formation against a single adversary. The scenarios get more complex in the next ten flights to cover tactical intercept missions. During these flights, students fly in a two-ship formation against one, two, and four adversaries in addition to flying against an unknown number of adversaries. They also complete one tactical intercept flight at night with NVGs.

The air-to-air phase finishes with aerial engagements against dissimilar fighters, usually F-15s and F/A-18s that come from such varied sources as the US Air Force, Navy, and Marines and the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The last phase of the training involves air-to-ground missions in which students start with ten surface attack missions of increasing difficulty. They begin by dropping unguided bombs and advance to using targeting pods to direct guided munitions. The unit has both LITENING and LANTIRN targeting pods. The final surface attack training flight is flown at night and uses both NVGs and a targeting pod to drop guided munitions.

Surface attack training is followed by surface attack tactics. In ten flights of increasing complexity, students learn to fight to a target, drop their weapons, and then fight their way back to their home base. The final flight in this series is conducted at night with NVGs. Surface attack tactics are followed by four close air support training flights that derived from real-world scenarios conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan. The last of these close air support missions is flown at night.

At the end of their coursework, the students apply everything they have learned when they deploy to another base for two weeks for a graduation exercise. The 149th has used several locations for this exercise, including NAS Fallon in Nevada; Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona; and, most recently, Luke AFB in Phoenix, Arizona. Students fly at least five sorties during the exercise, including two close air support sorties.

“The exercise moves them out of their comfort zone,” said Kane. “They have to operate from a different base, from a new runway, and in unfamiliar ranges. And they fly with live munitions for the first time. They even drop laser-guided bombs. During the exercise, they coordinate with joint terminal ground controllers for the close air support missions. The deployment provides a tremendous amount of experience in a short time.”

Students graduate from the course in a formal ceremony. “Graduation is a big event for the students and for the instructors,” said Lt. Col. Gordon Niebergall, squadron commander of the 182nd FS, the flying unit that falls under the 149th. “We usually have more than 100 guests at the ceremony that include leadership and maintainers from our wing.”

“The B-course students are always very motivated and smart,” said Lt. Col. Raul Rosario, instructor pilot and chief of standardization and evaluation for the 182nd. “But they know very little about the F-16. By the time they leave, they can employ it as a weapon system.”

Graduates from the B-course are certified to fly air-to-air missions, to drop laser-guided munitions, and to operate the aircraft at night with NVGs. “While they are not completely ready for combat,” added Rosario, “they are ready for that transition, which is done in mission qualification training at their operational units. In three months, they can be in an operational theater dropping munitions in combat.”

Other Courses

While the B-course caters to the uninitiated and inexperienced, other pilot training courses conducted at the 149th are geared to seasoned fighter pilots. The structure of the flight training, though somewhat similar, is more concentrated. The transition course, designed to qualify or requalify experienced fighter pilots in the F-16, also moves through the same training phases as the basic course (transition, air-to-air, and air-to-ground). However, each phase in transition training consists of fewer flights. Similarly, the instructor pilot course moves at a faster pace than in the basic course and places a greater emphasis on system and tactical knowledge.

Training Improvements

The 149th has been at the forefront for improving F-16 training courses. Soon after the wing transitioned from a general-purpose unit to a formal training unit in the late 1990s, for example, its instructor pilots incorporated NVG training into both the basic and transition courses.

“Before we initiated NVG training, these courses were taught only in the operational units,” Niebergall explained. “The training load often hampered operational units in keeping their pilots mission qualified. Our instructor pilots thought the students could handle NVG training, so we tried incorporating it here on a small scale.”

The training was a success. Soon after, Air Education and Training Command incorporated NVG training into syllabuses at all the training units. The 149th further expanded its syllabus in 2005 with targeting pod training. Laser- and GPS-guided munitions training followed.

Aside from the need to relieve operational units from additional training requirements, the coursework also expanded because of several other factors. Most significantly, new training topics reflect the expanding capabilities of the F-16. “The airplane is always becoming more capable and more effective,” said Kane. “Advanced weapons, NVGs, targeting pods, color cockpit displays, datalinks, and many other systems have been added to the aircraft since it was introduced.”

Kane also credits the unit’s size for taking the lead on many of the syllabus changes through the years. “We are in a good position to take initiatives,” he explained. “As a Guard unit with a single squadron, we have more flexibility. We can incorporate new topics on a smaller scale to see if they work in our training syllabus.”

Experience level is another factor. When the 149th initiated NVG training in the late 1990s, the unit had six instructor pilots with more than 4,000 hours of flying time each in the F-16. Today, instructors at the 149th average about 2,100 hours each.

New hardware and capabilities require new tactics. Instructor pilots must also account for tactics as they adjust to theaters and threats. While new technologies and tactical changes don’t affect the number of sorties needed to train a new F-16 pilot, they do influence what instructor pilots do in those training sorties. To keep up with the latest technologies and tactics used in actual combat, instructor pilots from the 149th often deploy with operational squadrons to combat theaters on regular Air Expeditionary Force rotations.

The Future

A state-of-the-art simulator facility scheduled to open in late 2012 will usher in additional improvements in the way the 149th trains fighter pilots. The facility, called the Mission Training Center, or MTC, includes four domed simulators with 360-degree fields of regard. The facility will allow the 149th to add a new course to its instructional menu—Advanced Tactics.

“The MTC will bring more changes to our syllabus,” explained Rosario, project lead for the facility. “It will be capable of simulating all blocks of the F-16. We will be able to expose students to more four-ship scenarios. The only place to create complicated scenarios with integrated air defense systems, outside of the ranges at Nellis, is in a simulator facility like the one we are building here.”

The MTC in San Antonio will be linked to six other active duty and Guard MTCs, which are located at Spangdahlem AB in Germany, Misawa AB in Japan, Nellis AFB in Nevada, Luke AFB in Arizona, Burlington ANGB in Vermont, and Des Moines IAP in Iowa.

The 149th is looking beyond the MTC and even beyond the F-16 for its future. “We could easily and inexpensively transition to a training mission for the F-35,” Kane said. He highlights his wing’s success in training F-16 pilots since 1999. As an active duty base, Lackland offers ample housing and medical facilities to accommodate more pilots as well as plenty of hangar and ramp space to accommodate more aircraft.

“We enjoy excellent airspace, excellent ranges, and excellent weather,” Kane added. “And we have tremendous community support. The experience level of our pilots and maintainers is second to none. San Antonio has deep roots in military aviation. Kelly Field, which is now part of Lackland AFB, was one of the first locations for training military pilots. Today, the same location is ideally suited for the next generation of tactical aviation. The 149th Fighter Wing is exceptionally qualified to handle that challenge.”

Eric Hehs is the editor of Code One.