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F-16 pilots: flying to keep Misawa mission-ready

By Airman 1st Class C. Todd Lopez

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan (Aug. 18, 2000) -- Another mid-work-week briefing and the speaker at the front of the room is droning on and on about the new office paper-handling procedures. It's not long, however, before you hear the sound of a jet engine gearing up. As the windows start to rattle, briefing attendees groan. In your mind, you hear the voice of a crusty old noncommissioned officer, retired before he could see you sew on your first stripes, tell you exactly what the sound was.

That's the sound of freedom, airman.

Misawa Air Base launches nearly 36 F-16 aircraft each duty day. The sorties flown are essential, because they keep our pilots sharp and ready to perform Misawa Air Base's mission.

According to Capt. Paul Carlton, a pilot with the 13th Fighter Squadron, that mission is SEAD, or Suppression Of Enemy Air Defenses.

"I fly the F-16 for Misawa, using the [aircraft] generally for SEAD or Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, which generally involves shooting the High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile," said Carlton. "My job is to support the guys dropping bombs, to prevent them from being shot or from being killed, whether that be defending them from air-to-air or surface-to-air threats. The Air Force's job is to put bombs on target, [Misawa pilots] are a support asset to that role."

Being able to perform the mission at any time requires Misawa pilots be highly skilled in the SEAD mission. This requires pilots to engage in many types of training.

"We try to break [training] down into a building block approach," said Capt. Brook Leonard, a 13th Fighter Squadron pilot. "First, there are the basic air-to-air fundamentals. Then we'll train in the more tactical flying. We'll go out there and just do target practice. Then we'll have a more involved scenario where there might be bad guys shooting at us so we'll come up with a plan on how best to attack them while they're flying out there."

Other training keeps pilots sharp on their secondary job, dropping bombs. Pilots regularly use Ripsaw Range, a training range approximately ten miles north of Misawa, for target practice.

Training for Misawa pilots is an ongoing, year-round process.

"You are required to fly a certain number of sorties a year. We call it the Ready Air Crew Program," explained Leonard. "We have to do so many air-to-air, so many air-to-ground, and so many tactical sorties. Every day I try to get better. You can never say you are fully trained."

From an observer standpoint, it may seem pilots do nothing but fly the F-16, an aircraft capable of breaking the speed of sound. The misconception doesn't sit well with some pilots.

"I think that the biggest misunderstood point," said Leonard. "A lot of people think we just show up and go fly and hang out. There is a tremendous amount of preparation involved.

"For instance, for every sortie I fly it takes me eight or nine hours of additional time to mission plan. Mission planning, depending on how complicated the sortie is, can take one hour to three hours. The briefing takes about one hour. Going out and starting up the plane and getting ready to go out to the end of the runway takes about an hour," explained Leonard. "Then you get about an hour of flying. After that, about an hour to get back to the building and get out of your equipment. Then about two to three hours in debrief."

With all the time spent learning about what they will be doing in the air, getting suited up, preparing to fly, and debriefing, pilots are really not left with that much time in the air at all.

According to Carlton, an individual pilot spends less than ten hours a week actually in the air. "We fly somewhere between three and six hours a week," said Carlton.

At the same time pilots are preparing to fly or are discussing what they did during their flight, they are actually performing additional, non-flying duties.

Carlton serves as an Electronic Combat Pilot, responsible for ensuring radar detection and evasion equipment on all Misawa F-16s remains current. Additionally, he serves as a scheduler for other pilots. Leonard serves as the Chief of Wing Weapons. He leads a shop of pilots who support the wing commander and the Operations Group commander in weapons and tactics issues. Additionally, he serves as an instructor pilot.

Pilots don't do all the work on flying missions, however. Sortie generation is heavily dependent on the many Operations Group and Logistics Group maintenance troops who prepare the aircraft for flight. Their efforts are not lost on the pilots.

"Those guys, they are the ones that make it happen," said Leonard. "I talk about the amount of prep time I have, there is at least that amount of prep time for like ten other people. About ten other people putting in those hours to make sure the aircraft is ready. That starts with the crew chief, who basically preps the jet and launches me out. Then there are the people that support the avionics or the fuels guys that bring us gas every day. There is a tremendous support structure; for every sortie you see, there are perhaps thirty people you can pat on the back and say 'thanks for helping out.'"

While there is a vast amount of work involved for both the pilots and the maintenance crews in performing Misawa's F-16 mission, the pilots still do enjoy an edge when it comes to payback on their efforts.

"If it's a gorgeous blue sky day, it's so fun to fly around down at low altitudes. Once we get [to the training areas] we can do anything we want inside the training space," said Leonard.

"It's pretty much being able to control your world," said Carlton. "You can see forever, and everything is there at your hands to be able to do what you need to do. This is one of those jobs you can't believe they pay you to do."

"In the course of day-to-day business, what we do involves a high degree of risk. It takes a team of dedicated pilots and professional maintenance and support technicians to mitigate that risk. In the end, however, when the time comes to perform in combat, this team becomes lethal! The service these warriors provide for our country and for our fellow comrades in arms...is priceless," said Col. Michael Lepper, 35th Operations Group commander.