The Arizona Air National Guard’s (AZ ANG) 162nd Fighter Wing is based opposite the commercial terminal at Tucson International Airport. The 162nd FW trains military pilots from nations around the world, on how to fly F-16s.

Words & Photography: Kedar Karmarkar

So it is a common sight to see different nations’ F-16 Vipers taking off from Tucson International Airport in sunny Arizona. The Tucson area was chosen because of the excellent weather provided by the climate all year round, as Tucson sits on a desert plain in the Sonoran desert, surrounded by five mountain ranges. This translates to higher sortie rates for training units that need to impart the essential training to rookie pilots in order to become fully combat-capable. The 148th Fighter Squadron which is a unit under the 162nd FW is tasked with training pilots of the Koninklijke Luchtmacht - KLu - in short translated to Royal Air Force - or the Royal Netherlands Air Force. And it makes sense especially for the KLu to train at Tucson, since the weather over The Netherlands is cloudy and rainy often in the year preventing regular student training missions.

The 148th Fighter Squadron traces its roots back to the 347th Fighter Squadron, which was activated at RAF Duxford, England, on 1 October 1942. Following World War II, the 347th Fighter Squadron was allocated to the Pennsylvania Air National Guard and the unit was de-activated on 7 November 1945. After several rounds of activation and de-activation, the designation transferred to the Arizona Air National Guard on 1 October 1985 and two weeks later the 148th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron was re-activated. Assigned to the 162nd Tactical Fighter Group at Tucson, the 148th was tasked with training foreign pilots to fly the F-16. Re-designated the 148th Fighter Squadron on 15 May 1992, training continued with international student pilots, to include pilots of the Royal Netherlands Air Force, as well as students from the United States Air Force and Air National Guard. Training of Dutch pilots came to an end when the Dutch F-16s left Tucson in May 1995. The 148th Fighter Squadron started a new era after a contract was signed to train pilots of the United Arab Emirates Air Force. With the arrival of the first F-16E and F aircraft at Tucson on 2 September 2004, the first training courses were flown, with the first class graduating in April 2005. The squadron trained a total of over 100 UAE pilots, before the program came to an end on 20 October 2010 and all of their ‘Desert Falcons’ left for the UAE. A new contract with the Dutch was signed in 2010 and the KLu moved their F-16 pilot training from Springfield, Ohio back to the 148th Fighter Squadron at Tucson.

According to LtCol. Joost ‘Niki’ Luysterburg, Detachment Commander of the 148th FS, the primary mission of the 148th FS is to train F-16 pilots for foreign air forces that have purchased aircraft via the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. Pilots graduate from the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT) program at Sheppard AFB, in Texas and report to the 148th FS for their Initial Qualification Training on the Viper. LtCol. Luysterburg trained at Sheppard AFB in the ENJJPT program in 1990 and then reported for training in the 148th FS back in 1992 before joining the 323rd Test and Eval Squadron back at Leeuwarden AB. The 148th flies on average around 2,000 hours per year to achieve the goal of graduating four new F-16 student pilots every nine months. It also provides operational pilots with sorties to fulfil their yearly continuation training requirements, maintaining currency for the various missions before they head out on combat deployments. It is a big responsibility says LtCol. Luysterburg, being a good Instructor Pilot (IP) because it can really make a difference on the student’s future flying, especially in combat. It’s not a one-sided role where the student has to excel all the time, it's also the IP’s responsibility to bring out the best in the student. LtCol. Luysterburg himself has 3800+ hours on the F-16 of which 700+ were spent in combat missions. He has an impressive achievement list - Top Formation Pilot Award at ENJJPT, Fighter Weapons School Distinguished graduate with ‘Best Overall Pilot’, and ‘Best Air to Air Pilot’ awards; having flown in combat multiple times in Deny Flight, Decisive Endeavour, Deliberate Guard, Deliberate Force, Allied Force and serving as Director of Operations and combat pilot for multiple Dutch detachments supporting ISAF in Afghanistan. Although its main mission is qualifying student pilots on the F-16, the 148th FS also assists the Operational Test and Evaluation unit requirements for new ordnance and sensors that appear in the inventory of the KLu.

The 148th FS flies ten F-16 aircraft; five F-16AM single-seat fighters and five F-16BM twin-seat fighters all owned and operated by the KLu. On the question of operational differences between the F-16s in the operational squadrons back home vis-a-vis those of the 148th FS, LtCol. Luysterburg commented “We get the same upgrades in hardware and software as the jets back home. The same goes for new capabilities, weapons and new sensors. We just added AIM-9X to our jets in The Netherlands, so the 148th FS jets also carry AIM-9X now. The jets in The Netherlands just upgraded most of the fleet to the Sniper targeting pod. The 148th FS expects Sniper pods by the end of the year. All instructors in Tucson get information and academics on new systems as soon as they are fielded, just like the operational pilots in The Netherlands”.

A Dutch pilots commands the Dutch detachment in the 148th FS and he has a Dutch Director of Operations that runs the operational side of the Squadron. Maintenance on the jets is performed by the Arizona Air National Guard as a result of a bilateral agreement signed between the governments. A total of 2 Dutch officers have a liaison function with their US counterparts and another Dutch officer handles all the logistics for the squadron with assistance from AZ NAG and civilian contractors at the base. Typically the squadron gets four students for a class that runs for nine months. The course syllabus is split up in 3 phases - Transition and Instrument phase, focused on learning to fly the F-16 in both good weather and instrument conditions. Next up is the Air to Air phase, where students learn the concepts of Basic Fighter Manoeuvres (BFM) and Air Combat Tactics (ACT). This phase teaches the students to take on the airborne threat. Missions range from long range radar intercepts and engagements to close in dogfighting. The third phase is the Air to Ground phase, where students learn to engage various targets on the ground with the vast amount of different weapons and sensors the KLu employs in combat. During all the three different phases mid-air refueling is practiced regularly. Remaining on-station is an important quality to have when supporting ground troops engaged in combat. The importance of mid-air refueling cannot be overstated. Flying combat training sorties at night is also a regular feature during all the three phases of the training. On the aspect of deployments outside their home base, LtCol. Luysterburg replied “Yes we do. Every class gets to deploy outside of Tucson for a period of 2-3 weeks. Most of the latest deployments have been to Miramar. But future plans look at other locations as well”.

The KLu recently received its first two of thirty seven F-35A Lightning II fighters as a partner of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. The first F-35A was delivered to the KLu on 25th July 2013 at Fort Worth facility of Lockheed-Martin. The F-35A went to Eglin AFB, Florida for integration testing and then flew to Edwards AFB for operational testing and evaluation phase in the California desert landing there on 16th January 2015. These fighters belong to the 323rd Test and Eval Squadron of the KLu. They currently have a crew of four pilots qualified to fly the F-35A and a ground crew of twenty seven maintainers. An important part of this operational test and evaluation phase is deployment in a conflict. In addition to validating the operational capabilities of the F-35A weapon system, the KLu also sees an important need to inter-operate the existing F-16s with a very versatile fifth-generation fighter aircraft, according to Col. Bert de Smit, 323rd Detachment commander. The 148th FS additionally also assists the 323rd TES with regular interoperability testing since 2015. LtCol. Luysterburg has great respect for the advanced capabilities of the F-35A, saying “The F-35 is a leap forward in the capabilities of Airpower. A much needed upgrade for our old and over stretched fighter force. An extremely capable fighter that will serve our Air Force and nation for a long time. Just as the F-16 has done during it's impressive history. As far as capabilities goes you can see in unclassified reports about the latest Red Flags on how F-35 has been performing so far. Impressive. And that's just one of the earlier Blocks.”  According to LtCol. Luysterburg, the KLu foresees to start flying the F-35A in 2019 with the first deployment at Leeuwarden AB and then Volkel AB in 2021. He added that the current plans call for the F-16 to continue flying with the KLu till 2025.

I wish to thank LtCol. Luysterburg, Centre of Aviation Photography (COAP) led by Rich Cooper and Steven Comber, and Frank Crébas with whose help the visit with the 148th FS was arranged at Tucson, Arizona, as well as the KLu flight crew, and the AZ ANG staff which supports the 148th FS on the ground, and all the members of the 323rd TES for their help in the creation of this article.