As we have seen so far in this series of articles, the majority of the active duty USAF’s F-16 fleet is divided between Air Combat Command, USAFE and PACAF. Much smaller numbers are assigned to Air Education and Training Command (AETC) and Air Force Materiel Command, but their contributions are of great significance.
Air Education and Training Command
In the early days of F-16 operations, pilot training was conducted by both the 58th TFTW at Luke AFB, AZ, and the 58th TFTW at MacDill AFB, FL. In 1994, the 56th moved from MacDill AFB to Luke AFB, and training was consolidated in one location.
Today, responsibility for training all USAF pilots destined for active-duty F-16 units is delegated to the 56th FW at Luke AFB, AZ, part of AETC. Luke AFB is home to the greatest concentration of F-16s in the USAF, and the 56th FW is a huge unit consisting of six active squadrons, each of which tends to have a particular specialisation.
The 62nd FS ‘Spikes’ is one of two Luke AFB based squadrons tasked primarily with converting new pilots to fly the F-16. For that role, it is predominantly equipped with early Block 25 F-16C/Ds and mainly trains pilots in the fundamentals of F-16 operations, and fighter operations in general. Students go on to continue their training when assigned to their active duty units.
While the 308th FS ‘Emerald Knights’ does teach some courses to new pilots, its primary mission is to train experienced F-16 pilots to be instructors. In that role, it is equipped with newer, Block 42 F-16C/Ds.
The 309th FS ‘Wild Ducks’ also operates the Block 42 version of the jet, having traded in its Block 25s in the last few years. Like the 62nd FS, its role is turning out qualified F-16 pilots for the active duty Air Force.
The 310th FS ‘Top Hats’ has the most specialised role of all the squadrons at Luke AFB. Equipped with Block 42 jets, the squadron provides training in advanced techniques to experienced F-16 pilots. Mostly this involves the use of night vision goggles, with the unit being tasked with providing all pilots training on NVG use. The 310th FS is also the only USAF unit to teach F-16 pilots to be Forward Air Controllers (FACs).
The four squadrons already described are all concerned with training USAF pilots; in addition, two more squadrons train overseas pilots to fly the F-16. Although the aircraft of the 21st FS are painted in a standard USAF scheme and carry USAF marks, they are actually owned by the Republic of China Air Force (RoCAF) and used to train Taiwanese pilots to fly the F-16. The 21st FS ‘The Gamblers’ was established in 1997 and flies the Block 20 F-16A/B, a version unique to the RoCAF.
The other unit tasked with training foreign students is the 425th FS ‘Black Widows’ which operates the most advanced F-16s to be assigned to Luke AFB. The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) operates a modern fleet of aircraft including Block 52 F-16C/Ds. Singapore itself is a very small nation, with limited airspace to train, so sends most of its pilots overseas to learn to fly its aircraft.
The 425th FS trains RSAF pilots to fly the Block 52 F-16 using a fleet of F-16Cs and Ds; the two seaters are readily identifiable by the now familiar bulged spine, which is not carried by any (non-test) USAF jets.
Air Force Materiel Command
Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) is the agency concerned with the testing and development of new systems for the USAF. These can take the form of entirely new aircraft, or upgrades to the capabilities of current weapons systems. AFMC has two flying wings that operate the F-16: the 96th Test Wing (TW) at Eglin AFB, FL and the 412th TW at Edwards AFB, CA.
The better known of these two units is, of course, the 412th TW, with Edwards AFB being the home of the Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC). The 412th TW consists of eight squadrons, each tasked with testing a particular type, or group of types. Two of the squadrons operate the F-16, the 416th FLTS and 445th FLTS.
The 416th FLTS is the primary squadron engaged with testing the F-16. Some of this work involves weapons integration, but most of the squadron’s efforts are directed towards testing upgraded systems and software. For example, the unit helped in the development of the MLU package for the F-16A/B, even though the USAF in the end declined to update its early jets.
In addition, the 416th FLTS also performs chase duties for other test programmes and also supplies aircraft to the USAF Test Pilots School. It has a collection of aircraft from different Blocks, which are painted in several different colour schemes. The most striking of these is the unique red and white scheme most associated with Edwards-based aircraft.
The 445th FLTS also operates a fleet of F-16s, alongside a mixed fleet of other aircraft, including the T-38, C-12 and KC-135. The squadron is engaged in general flight test duties and also performs some chase duties.
The other wing assigned to AFMC is the 96th TW at Eglin AFB, FL. This unit is mostly tasked with weapons testing and clearance, and its F-16s are assigned to the 40th FLTS. Whenever new or more advanced versions of current weapons become available, it is the responsibility of the squadron to ensure that they are compatible with the F-16.
Some of the more exotic weapons which have been tested in this way in the last couple of years include the AGM-142 Have Nap, AGM-154 JSOW, GBU-15 Hobos and AGM-84 Harpoon. All of these are cleared for carriage and delivery on the F-16, although in reality are seldom seen beneath its wings.
In the next installment of the series, we will turn our attention to the Middle East and the Royal Jordanian Air Force.