The 56th Fighter Wing

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The 56th Fighter Wing recently hosted a two day visit by Dash 2 Aviation Photography that included a fantastic photo flight. “It may rank up there as my most enjoyable, and productive photo flight” comment’s Rick Llinares. The 56th Fighter Wings official stated mission is to “Train the world’s finest F-16 pilots and crew chiefs while providing agile combat support for air and space expeditionary forces.” The Wing is part of the USAF’s Air Education and Training Command and is home to 200 F-16’s and more than 8 individual F-16 squadrons. Current Wing Commander Colonel Philip M. Breedlove states his view on the Wing’s mission directly,” We train 95 percent of the USAF F-16 pilots, as well as the maintainers. These pilots can, and do complete their training with us, and one month later could possibly fly combat operations for their country. Of equal importance is the fact that we also train all the maintainers of the F-16.”

The F-16 Fighting Falcon or “Viper” as it is unofficially called is the workhorse of the USAF’s tactical combat fighting force. The effectiveness and high sortie rates the F-16 has enjoyed in the many operations it has taken part in is a testament to the pilots that fly the jet, and the ground personnel that keep them serviced and flyable. Colonel Breedlove adds,” To place our value in perspective, during the first Gulf war about 50% of the F-16 pilots/maintainers trained here at Luke AFB. During the recent actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, over 90 percent of the pilots/maintainers flying and servicing the F-16 where trained by the 56th. The F-16 makes up over half of the fighter aircraft force of the USAF and is the only fighter aircraft capable of fulfilling every major mission type.”

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Luke AFB is the largest and only active duty F-16 training base in the world. Flight operations take place from early in the morning up until midnight. The 56th FW conducts over 200,000 flights each year. The 56th Fighter Wing also has access to the massive 2 million acre Barry M. Goldwater ranges in the south western part of Arizona. The range is the perfect training ground for fledgling F-16 Viper pilots to learn their complex craft all under the careful supervision of the Wings highly qualified Instructor Pilots (IP). Colonel Breedlove notes that the ranges are one of the main reasons the Wing is able to fulfill its mission. “The ranges are the critical component to our success. To do our job, the training requires airspace and the Goldwater ranges are the best available. We have the basic bombing ranges to introduce the students to the air-to-ground mission. At the next level, we have tactical ranges that allow the students to fly against target arrays similar to those threats faced in combat. We also have Military Operating Areas (MOA’s) and restricted ranges that are used for realistic air-to-air training. One of our greatest challenges is managing the use of the needed airspace and ranges in close proximity to a growing, thriving city like Phoenix.”

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Turning a pilot fresh out of the training command into a combat ready F-16 fighter pilot is an intense nine month training program. The typical student has had a year of flight training and a follow on six week Fighter Fundamentals course in the AT-38 Talon. The program, simply dubbed the B course, turns out a qualified F-16 wingman. The curriculum is divided into three major parts or phases that are then segmented into blocks consisting of more specific types of missions. Major Anthony “Stick” Abernathy, an Instructor Pilot with 7 years and 1,300 hours in the F-16 and the Wings Flying Executive Officer explains, “The three main phases are Transition, Air-to-Air and Air-to-Ground. Transition is where they learn how to fly the plane in a very basic format. Air-to-Air has them learn the basic fighting skills and how to employ the airplane as a wingman with another aircraft and their own. The final phase, Air-to-Ground is pretty simple; drop bombs, fly low to the ground.”

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61st Fighter Squadron Instructor Pilot and Squadron Programmer Major Patrick “Hondo” Encinas, also a high time “Viper” pilot with 1600 hours in the F-16 feels that the most challenging aspect of teaching a new pilot to fly the F-16, is getting them to “Think, act, walk and live like a fighter pilot. The mistakes always begin with walking in the door. The environment is so challenging and complex that rarely does a student walk in the door before he meets his first mistake face-to-face. Mistakes are part of the program not only for the students but also the Instructors. We operate as professional fighter pilots as a team and we are in a continual learning environment on how to better and more efficiently operate as an instrument of war.”

Dash 2 would like to thank the 56th Wing for their support with particular thanks to Wing Commander Colonel Breedlove, Captain Vanessa Hillman (Public Affairs), the 61st Fighter Squadron and Major Patrick Encinas, Major Anthony Abernathy, Captain Brian Kilian as well as Tech. Sgt. Kathleen Matthews, Major Mike Paoli and Mr. Doug Thar.

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