This article was first published in the May 2013 issue of Pacific Wings magazine and has been supplied to us by the author, Erik Roelofs.  It has intentionally not been updated, and we are running it ‘as was’.  We hope to be able to bring you an updated look at Luke AFB in the coming weeks.

Operated by nearly 30 countries worldwide, the F-16 Fighting Falcon is one of the most successful fighter aircraft ever designed. Even today it is still the backbone of the United States Air Force. Erik Roelofs travelled to Luke AFB, one of the largest F-16 bases in the world, to experience flying the “Viper” first hand.

© Erik Roelofs

Lt. Col. Jon “PRESS” Wheeler, 310th FS Commander, leads five Tophats over Arizona (the “69th FS” Viper actually belongs to the 310th FS) © Erik Roelofs

The Lightweight Fighter

In 1964 Colonel John Boyd published his ground breaking Energy Manoeuvrability (E-M) theory, which described how thrust, drag, weight and speed determine the turn rate and turn performance of any fighter aircraft. The Energy Manoeuvrability theory could generate performance data for any existing or future aircraft, allowing for the development of suitable aerial combat tactics. Likewise, the theory could also be used to generate data on new aircraft designs, stipulating the weight, drag and thrust figures required to achieve the desired performance characteristics. Based on his Energy Manoeuvrability theory, Col. Boyd started promoting the concept of a light, low-drag and high thrust-to-weight ratio fighter. Such a lightweight fighter would sacrifice top speed for manoeuvrability, an idea that ruffled more than a few feathers in an age where top speed was considered the most important characteristic of all. That thinking had resulted in aircraft like the F-4E Phantom II, which had become nearly twice as long and thrice as heavy as the F-86 Sabre.  As predicted by the Col. Boyd’s Energy Manoeuvrability theory, the F-4E was unable to match the manoeuvrability of the smaller and lighter North Vietnamese MiG-17 and MiG-21. After a lengthy political tug-of-war, the Air Force top started to take the concept of the lightweight fighter seriously. The argument of positioning the small fighter as a complementary fighter aircraft to the new F-15A Eagle air superiority fighter proved decisive.  In 1972, the United States Air Force (USAF) issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a lightweight fighter with a weight of 20,000 pounds, with excellent acceleration, turn-rate and range characteristics, and a top speed of only Mach 1.6. A number of responses were received and the Air Force selected two for further development. One of these was the General Dynamics Model 401, which the Air Force designated as the YF-16.

© Lindsay Peacock -

The second YF-16 to be produced – 72-1568 © Lindsay Peacock –

The Electric Jet

The YF-16 design team, headed by Harry Hillaker, had produced a truly revolutionary aircraft. The YF-16 incorporated many new design features that would set the benchmark for future generations of fighter aircraft.  The YF-16 was the first aircraft to incorporate the hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) concept. The ejection seat was tilted further backwards to allow the pilot a better view of the rear quarters and to ease the burden of high G-forces. The bubble shaped, single piece canopy offers an unobstructed view in almost all directions. The YF-16 was also the first fighter aircraft to feature digital fly-by-wire controls, where the movement of stick and rudder does not directly control the various control surfaces. Instead, these movements are analysed by the digital flight control computer which translates the stick and rudder input into aileron, elevator and rudder movements. The computer ensures that the pilot cannot fly the aircraft outside its performance envelope, which would result in an uncontrollable spin or damage to the aircraft. This enables the F-16 pilot to aggressively execute 9G manoeuvres during “dogfights” and fly the F-16 on the very edge of its performance envelope. The fly-by-wire system and digital flight control computer are essential as the F-16 is aerodynamically unstable, requiring the computer to make constant corrections in flight. It is this instability that gives the F-16 its unprecedented manoeuvrability. Not surprisingly, on 13 January 1975, the Air Force announced the YF-16 as the winner of the competition. Interestingly, the competing Northrop YF-17 Cobra was favoured by the US Navy and would eventually develop into the F/A-18 Hornet.

The first production F-16A entered service with the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base (AFB), Utah, on 6 January 1979. Although the aircraft is officially named the Fighting Falcon, no F-16 pilot calls it that. Instead, they refer to the F-16 as the Viper, after the futuristic space craft from the popular TV series “Battlestar Galactica”. Today’s F-16C is far more advanced than the original F-16A, capable of Beyond Visual Range (BVR) aerial combat and able to destroy ground targets with pinpoint precision in any weather or at night. Through a bewildering array of different Block numbers, the F-16 has been improved continuously throughout its service life. The F-16CM single-seat and F-16DM dual-seat Vipers are the most modern versions in service with the USAF. The F-16CM/DM designation was awarded to the 650 aircraft that were upgraded under the Common Configuration Implementation Program (CCIP), where they received colour cockpit displays, new computers and data link capabilities, the ability to use the Sniper XR advanced targeting pod, the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) and the latest precision guided weapons.

Captain Keith “Rosey” Rosenkranz flew 30 combat missions in the F-16C during Operation Desert Storm and captured his experiences in the critically acclaimed book, “Vipers in the Storm”.  After returning from the Persian Gulf, Capt. Rosenkranz left the Air Force to pursue a career with Delta Airlines where he still flies today. When asked to describe the experience of flying the F-16, he answers, “Imagine strapping a rocket on that fits like a well-tailored suit. In front of you are a bevy of cockpit displays and instruments sophisticated, yet simple. The entire weapon system is in your hands, which you never have to take off the stick and throttle to employ. The air-to-air or air-to-ground radar has the ability to spot an enemy that has no idea it’s being watched. Picture all of this and then imagine yourself at the controls while flying a few hundred feet of the ground at over 600 mph in the middle of the night. A fighter pilot and an F-16 are an entity of one.”

Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) James “WAM” Harkins flew the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the Royal Air Force Jaguar before converting to the Viper. Lt. Col. Harkins flew with the 80th Fighter Squadron (FS) in Korea and served six years as an Instructor Pilot with the 61st FS (now deactivated) and 308th FS at Luke AFB, accumulating a total of 1,507 hours on the Viper. Although retired from the Air Force, Lt. Col. Harkins continues to fly the QF-4E Phantom II at Holloman AFB.  When asked about a comparison between the F-15C and the F-16C, Lt. Col. Harkins said, “The beauty of the multi-role F-16 is that the jet is self-sufficient.  I can fight my way into the target area with my radar and air-to-air missiles, drop my precision bombs on the target, and fight my way out.  The F-15 is air-to-air only.  It’s a bigger airplane, with bigger radar, and has the advantage over an F-16 during longer range engagements.  If I can rope-a-dope my way into a short range or visual engagement then the odds are at least even, if not favouring the F-16 due to its much smaller size.  Also, the visibility out of the F-16 is awesome.  With the low canopy rails and no canopy bows, sometimes you forget you are surrounded by a jet!”

This F-16C Block 42, 90-0768,  served with the 363rd FW and 20th FW at Shaw AFB before arriving at Luke AFB in April 1994 © Erik Roelofs

Vipers in Combat

In USAF service the F-16 would not receive its baptism of fire until Operation Desert Storm in 1991, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.  During Operation Desert Storm, the Air Force deployed 249 F-16s to the Middle East, more than any other aircraft. The F-16 formed the backbone of Coalition’s strike capability, flying approximately 13,500 sorties and systematically destroying Iraq’s war making capability.  After attacking Iraq’s strategic targets, the F-16s turned their attention to the Iraqi Republican Guard, Saddam Hussein’s elite fighting force. Well-equipped with over 1,500 modern Soviet tanks, the battle hardened Republican Guard posed a formidable threat to any American and Coalition ground assault. A shortage of the recently introduced LANTIRN targeting pods meant that the F-16 pilots could not use the latest laser guided Paveway bombs but instead had to rely on unguided Mk82 and Mk84 bombs, CBU-87 cluster munitions and AGM-65 Maverick missiles. The LANTIRN navigation pods, however, were available and these enabled the Block 40/42 F-16s to continue their attacks throughout the night, denying the Republican Guard the chance to regroup under the cover of darkness. To counteract the lack of targeting pods, which were essential for night attack missions, F-16 pilots used the AGM-65 Maverick missile instead. The missile’s infrared optical sensor made for a crude but effective alternative for the missing targeting pods. To help locate the Iraqi Republican Guard in the vast desert, F-16 pilots invented the “Killer Scout” concept whereby several two-ship formations would patrol each designated “kill box” over Kuwait and Iraq. Once an Iraqi armour division had been located, the “Killer Scouts” would attack the vehicles while also guiding other patrolling F-16s towards the enemy, unleashing a deadly and continuous aerial assault onto the Iraqi tank divisions.

When asked about his most memorable mission during Desert Storm, Capt. Rosenkranz answers, “During the last week of the Gulf War, my wingman – Geoff “Grover” Cleveland – and I were en-route to rendezvous with a KC-10 tanker in northern Saudi Arabia. The weather was poor with solid cloud layers ranging from 7,000 to 30,000 feet.  Refuelling at night was challenging enough, doing it in the weather made it even more difficult. Once Grover and I topped off our tanks, we proceeded to a target east of Kuwait City – an airfield called Ali Al Salem. We were called in to suppress Iraqi tanks that were setting up to attack U.S. forces attempting to take the airfield. I cleared Grover, who was carrying four canisters of CBU-87, to remain above 15,000 ft. I was carrying two AGM-65D IR Maverick missiles, which would require me to drop below the cloud deck at 7,000 ft. Since Grover and I were in the weather, it was important for us to de-conflict from each other using an altitude buffer.

While Grover circled overhead, I dropped down and locked up an Iraqi tank with one of my Maverick missiles. I got a clean kill and as I watched the Iraqi tank burn below me, Grover called and asked me my position off of our reference steer point. Instead of concentrating on flying the aircraft, I diverted my attention to my instrument panel inside the cockpit. I called Grover on the radio to relay my position. All of a sudden, I realized it was extremely loud in the cockpit and my flight controls were extremely sensitive. My T-38 training made me realise I was going supersonic. I immediately looked down at my attitude indicator and saw that I was 30 degrees nose low. I then looked at my head-up display (HUD) and saw I was descending through 1,500 ft. Realising I had seconds to live, I pulled back on the stick as hard as I could. I was able to recover the jet, get one more Maverick missile kill, and monitor the area while Grover dropped his bombs. The flight back to base was surreal. A part of me wondered if I were dead and just didn’t know it. I wouldn’t call the experience my best memory in the F-16, but it was my most memorable flight in the F-16.”

Throughout Desert Storm, the F-16 multi-role fleet had been purposely focussed on the strike and interdiction role, which it had performed admirably. As a result of this, however, no aerial victories were achieved. Instead, the F-15C Eagle accounted for most kills, which is no surprise as the Eagle’s only mission is air superiority. The USAF Viper community would achieve its first kill on 27 December 1992, during Operation Southern Watch over Iraq.  Lt. Col. Gary “Nordo” North intercepted and destroyed an Iraqi MiG-25 Foxbat while flying an F-16D two-seater with the 33rd FS. This was also the very first AIM-120 AMRAAM kill in the history of the Air Force. Less than a month later, on 17 January 1993, an F-16C of the 23rd FS achieved another aerial kill over Iraq, destroying a MiG-23 Flogger with another AIM-120.  During combat operations over former Yugoslavia, two F-16Cs of the 526th FS shot down four Serbian J-1 Jastrebs on 28 February 1994.  Some five years later, on 4 May 1999, Lt. Col. Michael “Dog” Geczy, of the 78th FS, destroyed a Serbian MiG-29 Fulcrum with an AIM-120 missile. This is still the most recent USAF aerial kill to date.

A 526th FS F-16C from Ramstein AB, Germany © Kevin Wills –

The Viper’s Nest

With no fewer than six Fighter Squadrons and 138 F-16s, the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke AFB is, without a doubt,  a true “Viper’s nest”. Located near Phoenix, Arizona, Luke AFB is the birthplace of all Viper drivers in the Air Force. Belonging to the Air Education and Training Command (AETC), the 56th FW’s mission is to deliver first class F-16 pilots to Air Combat Command (ACC), the fighting arm of the Air Force.

The Wing consists of four USAF F-16  Fighter Squadrons, or Formal Training Units (FTU); the 62nd FS “Spikes”, the 308th FS “Emerald Knights”,  the 309th FS “Wild Ducks” and the 310th FS “Tophats”. The 62nd FS is one of the last Air Force squadrons to fly the original F-16C/D Block 25, with the other squadrons all operating the F-16CM/DM Block 42 models, which have all been upgraded under the CCIP program. Luke is also home to the 69th FS “Werewolves”, an Air Force Reserve unit that belongs to the 944th Fighter Wing. As an associate unit, the 69th FS has no aircraft of its own, but its pilots form an integral part of the other USAF F-16 squadrons of the 56th FW.  The 56th Training Squadron also has no aircraft but it plays an equally important role in the training mission of the 56th FW.  Manned by highly experienced instructor pilots, the 56th TRS teaches fighter academics and is responsible for the entire F-16 training syllabus.

Luke AFB is also home to two foreign squadrons.  The 21st FS, “Gamblers”, belongs to the Republic of China (Taiwanese) Air Force and flies the F-16A/B Block 20. Although referred to as A and B models, these Block 20 aircraft have very little in common with the first generation F-16A/B of the late seventies. The improved APG-66 radar can support both AIM-7 and AIM-120 missiles, the aircraft can utilise LANTIRN navigation and targeting pods and the cockpit is fitted with the same full-colour displays as found in the Block 50/52 USAF Vipers.  The F-16A/B Block 20 is only in use with the Taiwanese Air Force, although the aircraft at Luke AFB all wear the standard USAF markings. The 425th FS, “Black Widows”, is part of the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and flies the F-16C/D Block 52. Whereas the single seat F-16C models look very much like their American counterparts, the F-16D twin-seat aircraft are all fitted with a large fairing on the dorsal spine. The aircraft of the 425th FS are easily identified as they carry the Singapore national insignia, the lion’s head, instead of the stars and bars of USAF fighter squadrons.

In the days before the introduction of the sun sheds, this shot would have shown countless numbers of Vipers on the Luke AFB flightline © Erik Roelofs


The training course that transforms a green student into a capable and safe F-16 pilot is called the Basic Course, or B-course. Having successfully graduated from Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT), the basic flight training using T-6A Texan II and the T-38C Talon, the students must first survive the Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals (IFF) course using the AT-38C. The IFF program teaches students the foundations of Basic Fighter Manoeuvres (BFM), energy management and bombing.  While only a small selection of candidates make it to the start of UPT, not everybody will graduate and even fewer will make it through IFF. Only the very best candidates will get to pass through the gate at Luke AFB.

Those lucky enough to make it into the B-course are considered “pukes” by the veteran instructor pilots. They will be considered “unworthy” until they graduate and earn the right to call themselves Viper drivers.  No matter if the students came straight from basic flight training or flew any other aircraft, all students are considered equally uninitiated by the instructor pilots. When students walk into their classrooms for their first academic classes, they will have no idea about the tidal wave of information that is about to hit them square in the face.  The B-course lasts nine months and takes the students through hundreds of hours of academic studies, 20 simulator missions and 60 training sorties. Learning how to master the F-16 is best described as drinking from a fire hose.

Successfully completing the B-course in 1988, Capt. Rosenkranz was one of the last students to fly the F-16A/B with the 310th FS, “Tophats”, at Luke AFB. “We started out with several weeks of academics. I recall having to take 5 tests before we finally made it to the flight line. The first few flights were basic so students could learn and become comfortable in the jet. The next phase took us into the air-to-air arena focusing on offensive and defensive BFM. The air-to-air arena is such a dynamic environment. No matter how many times you fly, you rarely see the same things twice. This could be exhilarating and frustrating at the same time. The toughest part of the training was the high G environment and defensive BFM. The focus from an offensive position is to make the defender lose the will to fight. When you’re in a defensive position pulling 7, 8, 9 Gs, you find that the will to live doesn’t last as long as you would think or hope. Just trying to stay awake during high G turns is tough enough, let alone trying to create angles that would allow you to escape or manoeuvre to an offensive position. The last few months of training focus on the air-to-ground mission of the F-16. I loved flying low level. There was something about flying a few hundred feet above the ground at speeds in excess of 500 mph that excited me. The biggest and most exciting challenge was dropping bombs.”

Captain, now Major, Jevon Yeretzian prepares for another sortie. Major Yeretzian now serves with the 311th FS at Holloman AFB © Erik Roelofs

Although the basic structure of the B-course has not changed too much since Capt. Rosenkranz graduated, today’s training syllabus covers contemporary topics such as BVR engagements, AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles, evasion of enemy surface to air (SAM) missiles, targeting pods, laser guided GBU-12 Paveway and satellite guided GBU-38 JDAM ammunitions.  One thing that has not changed is the pressure applied to the students. Although students may have survived UPT and IFF, the B-course is not the place to rest on their laurels. Each student will hit a different stumbling block. For some the ability process the massive amounts of academic information is too much of a hurdle, others are physically incapable of dealing with the high G-forces and some students will simply not get to terms with the technology and speed of the F-16.

As Lt. Col. Matt “Tooma” Liljenstolpe, the 56th Training Squadron Commander, explains, it is not flying the F-16 that students usually struggle with.  “Flying the F-16 is not hard at all. The aircraft is very easy to fly, which is why the students only get four sorties in the twin seat F-16D. We could teach practically anyone to safely fly the F-16. The hard part is learning how to fight in the F-16. It is very manoeuvrable and the complexity of the weapon systems can be overwhelming. That is why flying the aircraft must become second nature for the students, so that they can focus themselves completely on fighting instead”.  While the first generation F-16A would subject the students to gut wrenching, high G-force manoeuvres, today’s F-16CM adds a sheer overwhelming array of switches, displays and technology to the already steep learning curve.

Breaking this complexity into manageable pieces is part of the challenges the instructor pilots face on a daily basis. While in the air, the instructor pilots are skilfully setting up engagement scenarios that allow students to experience aerial warfare in one of the most lethal fighter aircraft in the world.  Every second of each training mission, the instructor pilot must maintain absolute vigilance and always keep the students in their eyesight. When flying a formidable fighter aircraft like the F-16, it only takes a split second for an inexperienced student to transform a routine training exercise into a near death experience. Safety is paramount and violating basic safety principles such as breaking the minimum mission altitude or “hard deck”, not maintaining proper position while flying in formation or landing on the wrong runway at Luke AFB, are grounds for immediate failure of the mission.  However, instructor pilots can also fail missions, or “bust rides”, if they feel that students underperformed, were ill prepared or could not recite the correct emergency procedures during briefings. With five or six busted rides, a student would face the real possibility of “washing out” of the B-course, ending their aspirations as a fighter pilot.

The Viper remains highly agile, even when carrying the centerline fueltank © Erik Roelofs

Even for the most experienced students, the B-course is no walk in the park. Capt. Rosenkranz was an experienced T-38A instructor pilot himself before starting the B-course at Luke AFB. Despite having flown the nimble Talon for over three years, the punishing BFM training missions at Luke still remained very challenging, according to Capt. Rosenkranz. “Defensive BFM were difficult concepts to learn and perform well in the F-16. Making high-G turns while trying to defend against a bandit who is trying to kill you with his missiles or guns is extremely difficult. To survive, you have to have a strong will to live and then you have to hope the pilot trying to kill you makes a mistake. During my initial F-16 training, I was out on a defensive BFM sortie with my instructor. I was doing everything I could to force him into a mistake that would allow me to escape or reverse rolls. The high-G turns caused me to lose colour in my vision to the point where my vision was completely grey. At that point, if you don’t let off the Gs you stand a good chance of blacking out. My instructor had his way with me the entire sortie. I learned a lot of valuable lessons, but it wasn’t a fun sortie.”

The B-course is not only challenging for the students but each new class of students also keeps the most veteran instructor pilot on this toes. While serving as an instructor pilot, Lt. Col. Harkins learned to always keep your wits about when flying with students.  “There were definitely rides we did not want to be in the backseat for”, said Lt. Col Harkins, “Night landings, and long range/high G Basic Fighter Manoeuvre (BFM) perch set-ups and especially defensive [BFM] where we had to look over our back.  Those rides tended to be painful or scary! The big thing we learn about students is to never trust them! Things can go from great to Oh-My-God in seconds, so they need to be constantly monitored so that no one gets killed.  As for the students, there are lots of distractions in Phoenix, so keeping them focused and in the books is a big challenge.  I expected the student to read the syllabus and books and be prepared for the ride.  If they were not, or had an attitude, I had no problems busting them.  The F-16 does so much that it becomes very challenging to learn, and stay current, in all the missions. The pilot has to master what switches to hit, both order and timing, to get the correct weapon off in the correct mode at the correct place. While eating up a mile every 8 seconds! Mess that up, and the attack or your life could be in jeopardy. A big hurdle for new students was how to operate flying computers at fast speeds.  Flying had to become second nature so that brain cells could concentrate on timing, switches and tactics.  Most students that washed out either could not keep up with the jet workload, or stay awake for the high Gs. “

After nine months of tremendous hard work, many high G sorties and the odd nervous breakdown, the remaining students will graduate and are no longer considered “pukes”. As of their graduation day, they are Air Force fighter pilots. Or more precise, they are part of an elite group who can call themselves Viper drivers. But these newly born fighter pilots have still more learning to do.  Once transferred to their operational fighter squadrons, they must first complete their Mission Qualification Training (MQT) to achieve their combat readiness. During the MQT phase, these new pilots will be indoctrinated into their new squadrons and learn the specifics of the squadron’s aircraft, equipment and mission.

The command ship of the 62nd FS, F-16C Block 25 84-1308, is one of the oldest Vipers in the fleet. It now flies with the 309th FS at Luke AFB © Erik Roelofs

Dressed to Kill

“Dressed to kill” is the motto of the 310th Fighter Squadron, named the “Tophats”. The legacy of the 310th FS goes back to 1942 when the squadron was first established as the 310th Pursuit Squadron. The squadron flew the P-47 Thunderbolt in the Pacific during the Second World War and both the F-84G Thunderjet and F-86F Sabre in Korea, before being reactivated as a fighter training squadron at Luke AFB in 1969. While based at Luke AFB, the squadron provided training on the A-7D Corsair II and the F-4C Phantom II before receiving its first F-16s in 1982. The 310th FS has had the distinction of flying the very first production F-16As with serial numbers 78-0001 and 78-0002, nicknamed “Balls One” and “Balls Two”.  Capt. Rosenkranz was one of the last students to fly these aircraft during his B-course at Luke AFB, before the unit received the LANTIRN capable F-16C/D Block 42 aircraft in 1989.

The Tophats are commanded by Lt. Col. Jon “Press” Wheeler, who assumed command of the squadron on 15 June 2012.  A graduate of the prestigious USAF Weapons School, Lt. Col. Wheeler has more than 1800 flight hours on the T-37, T-38 and F-16.  Having served with two frontline F-16 squadrons, Lt. Col. Wheeler returned to Luke AFB as an instructor pilot and the 56th FW weapons officer.  Before assuming command of the 310th FS, Lt. Col. Wheeler played a crucial role in the successful establishment of the 33rd Fighter Wing, at Eglin AFB, as the very first F-35 training wing.

When asked about the 310th FS mission, Lt. Col. Wheeler replies, “The 310th Fighter Squadron delivers the very best F-16 fighter pilots, much like the other squadrons here at Luke AFB. Originally, the 310th was the only squadron in the Air Force to teach F-16 LANTIRN operations but as targeting pods became more prevalent; the use of them was incorporated into the B-course syllabus some years ago and are now also taught by the other squadrons within the 56th Fighter Wing. The 310th is still the only F-16 squadron to teach Night Vision Goggle, or NVGs, and Medium Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night, or MANTIRN, operations. The 310th is also the only F-16 Forward Air Controller, or FAC, schoolhouse in the Air Force. “

The FAC course lasts six weeks and teaches experienced F-16 fighter pilots the art of controlling a battle from the air. Rather than focussing on attacking ground targets themselves, the course teaches the pilots to multitask between communicating with friendly ground forces, coordinating available aircraft to provide close air support and direct those aircraft onto their targets. As these air strikes often occur at close proximity to friendly forces, there is little room for error. While performing all these tasks simultaneously, the FAC pilot must continue to fly his own aircraft through the battle zone.

Lt. Col. Wheeler crossing over the South Rim of the Grand Canyon © Erik Roelofs

Lightning Approaching

After taking delivery of 2,230 aircraft, the USAF received its final F-16 in March 2005. After 35 years of stellar service with the Air Force, Air Force Reserves (AFRC) and the Air National Guard (ANG), the Viper is still the mainstay of America’s frontline fighter force. But its successor, the F-35A Lighting II, has already entered service with the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin AFB, Florida, and the very first aircraft have recently been delivered to Nellis AFB in Nevada.  Luke AFB has already been selected as the primary training base for the F-35A and preparations are underway to receive the highly advanced aircraft. To make space, two of the F-16 squadrons will move to Holloman AFB, New Mexico, which in turn will see its F-22 fighter squadron move to Tyndall AFB, Florida.  In preparation of this squadron reshuffle, the 309th FS “Wild Ducks” deployed 18 aircraft to Holloman AFB in December 2012 to test its infrastructure and airspace for the F-16 training mission.

The F-35 Lightning II represents a whole new generation of fighter aircraft. Besides state of the art radar, sensors and weapon systems, the F-35A’s biggest party piece is its small Radar Cross Section (RCS). RCS is the measure to reflect how easy, or difficult, aircraft are detected by radar. The smaller the RCS value, the more “stealthier” an aircraft is and the F-35A is reported to be stealthier than the B-2A Spirit bomber. But all these capabilities come at a hefty price, $150 million US dollars per aircraft to be exact. Although that number is projected to decrease with each production batch, it remains unsure how the USAF is going to find funding for the 1,763 aircraft it intends to buy.

The imminent arrival of the F-35A coincides with the gradual reduction of the F-16 fleet within the USAF. Of the 2,231 F-16s the USAF received since 1978, 1,018 aircraft still remain in service today with the USAF, AFRC and ANG. However, the introduction of the F-35A will not see the Viper disappear into the sunset. The USAF has announced plans to update 300 F-16s with a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) and a Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite (CAPES). Marketed by Lockheed Martin as the F-16V, these aircraft will receive the latest Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, an advanced ALQ-213 electronic warfare system and a third full colour display in the cockpit. Although the F-16 has one of the lowest RCS signatures of its generation, under the Have Glass program the F-16s radar and infrared signature is even further reduced.  The first upgraded aircraft are scheduled to enter service in 2018 and will see the F-16 in frontline service for at least another 15 years, alongside the F-22A Raptor and F-35A Lightning II. Even though the F-35A will be arriving at Luke AFB in the very near future, the 56th FW will continue to fly the Viper for the foreseeable future. Not only to train a steady stream of new Viper drivers, but the F-16D also acts as the lead-in trainer for both the F-22 and F-35, as no twin-seat models exists for either aircraft. Until the analogue T-38C is replaced, the F-16D remains the best aircraft to transition student pilots onto the “digital” Raptor and Lightning II, especially as both the F-22 and F-35 are fitted with the same side-stick configuration as the F-16.

The F-16 continues to inspire many young Americans who dream of flying this masterful fighter. Few will be accepted into the Air Force and even fewer will ever get to strap themselves into the cockpit of the Viper. After that, there is no turning back, as Capt. Rosenkranz explains. “Being a fighter pilot is as much an attitude as it is a profession. The most challenging, most exciting, the most fulfilling thing I have ever done in my life is fly an F-16 100 feet off the ground at more than 600 mph in the middle of the night. Nothing I did before in life and nothing I’ve done since will match that intensity. The job of a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot is second to none! Take it and enjoy it! And if you doubt my word, then trade places with me so I can do it all over again.”

The Tophats pose for the camera while enroute to the Grand Canyon © Erik Roelofs


The editor and author would like to thank SAF/PA, the 56th Fighter Wing, the 310th Fighter Squadron and 56th FW Public Affairs for their tremendous support. In particular, we would like to give extraordinary thanks to Lt. Col. John “Press” Wheeler, Lt. Col. Matt “Tooma” Liljenstolpe (the greatest fighter pilot in the world), Capt. Tristan Hinderliter and Mora Macario Jr. The editor and author are also exceptionally grateful for the assistance from Lt. Col. (Ret.) James “WAM” Harkins and former Capt. Keith “Rosey” Rosenkranz.


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