Lone Star Gunfighters navigate challenges to produce F-16 pilots

Story by: 2nd Lt. Phil Fountain

Posted: May 5, 2016

2nd Lt. Phil Fountain  Lt. Col. Bryan Carlson (right), an F-16 Fighting Falcon instructor pilot and commander of the 149th Maintenance Group, visits with Chief Master Sgt. John D. Mead (left), the group’s maintenance operations flight superintendent, at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, April 15, 2016. Carlson and Mead are members of the Texas Air National Guard’s 149th Fighter Wing, headquartered at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, which is currently operating at Luke while San Antonio’s Kelly Field undergoes runway repairs. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by 2nd Lt. Phil Fountain) 160415-Z-DJ352-001
2nd Lt. Phil Fountain 
Lt. Col. Bryan Carlson (right), an F-16 Fighting Falcon instructor pilot and commander of the 149th Maintenance Group, visits with Chief Master Sgt. John D. Mead (left), the group’s maintenance operations flight superintendent, at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, April 15, 2016. Carlson and Mead are members of the Texas Air National Guard’s 149th Fighter Wing, headquartered at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, which is currently operating at Luke while San Antonio’s Kelly Field undergoes runway repairs. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by 2nd Lt. Phil Fountain) 160415-Z-DJ352-001

LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Arizona (April 15, 2016) – Each year, the 149th Fighter Wing, headquartered at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, trains F-16 Fighting Falcon student pilots for the Total Force – U.S. Air Force, Air National Guard and U.S. Air Force Reserve. Their courses include: initial qualification training, instructor pilot upgrade training and senior leader re-qualification training.

This year, the Texas Air National Guard unit, whose members are known as the Lone Star Gunfighters, is overcoming unusual adversity to achieve their Air Force objectives.

The current challenges include a temporary relocation of operations from San Antonio’s Kelly Field to Luke Air Force Base, near Phoenix, to numerous maintenance issues affecting their aircraft fleet.

“Each year, in April, we come to Arizona to allow the students to be able to participate in a large force employment exercises,” said Lt. Col. Bryan Carlson, an instructor pilot and commander of the 149th Maintenance Group.

“It allows them to fly with other airplanes from other services and to fly beyond just a four-ship, to employ as an eight-ship and beyond, and to fly against multiple targets,” Carlson said. “And it allows them to drop heavy weights and live bombs.”

The trip to Arizona is not new, but the length of the stay is, Carlson said. Typically, the trip is a two-week temporary duty that incorporates the ANG unit’s annual training requirements, but now they have been in-place for nearly two months.

The annual trip is normally dubbed Coronet Cactus, and serves as a capstone, training event for the student pilots before they graduate and head off to their active or reserve component units. This year, the Gunfighters are calling the trip Super Cactus, due to their extended visit to the Grand Canyon State.

The temporary relocation is a result of ongoing repairs to Kelly Field, which are expected to be complete in May.

As a result of the relocation, the unit has had to adjust its training syllabus and integrate themselves into a new environment.

“We’ve had to figure out the nuances of operating at a location like Luke,” said Lt. Col. Kristian Thiele, an instructor pilot and the assistant director of operations for the wing’s 182nd Fighter Squadron. “We are competing with not only six other flying squadrons for airspace and range time, but also the Marine customers at Yuma, as well as Davis-Monthan and Tucson (units).”

“At home, we are the only user, typically, of our airspace, so we can drive our own schedule,” Thiele said. “Here, we’ve been at the mercy of their range airspace scheduling, so we’ve had some pretty wild shifts in takeoff times and where our days are from week to week. That’s been a challenge.”

But the mission goes on and the pilot training remains underway. However, a more serious threat to the unit’s training mission involves the structural integrity of some of their F-16s.

“We’re at a unique time, because our home station planes are going through a repair process that we haven’t had to do before,” Carlson said. “We’re operating with significantly less airplanes right now and still trying to be able to keep the student timeline relatively close.”

This is an issue for the Total Force, but mostly impacts Air National Guard units, which operate aging Block-30 F-16s, Carlson said. All of the Gunfighters’ two-seat training model aircraft were grounded last fall.

“It’s mainly a Guard problem,” Carlson said. “Right now, it’s only a D-Model, or two-seat, problem. But it affects the longeron, which is a main frame of the plane. Last November, we found a crack in a position of that longeron at the aft end of the canopy. The repair process takes about 21 days.”

Gunfighter maintainers are working with an aircraft depot team from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, to work on the jets at Luke, Carlson said. After completing these repairs, the aircraft should be able to fly another 1,000 hours before further repair; afterward, they will have to undergo a yearlong repair process.

“We’re in historic times right now, we’ve never had to fly the airplanes that are still flyable at the rate that we’ve had to fly them,” Carlson said. “What ends up happening when you do that is: you compress the required maintenance that has to happen on those airplanes.”

To keep their training on pace, the unit reached out to other units to borrow available F-16s.

“We borrowed some jets from other Air National Guard units – from Vermont, Atlantic City and Alabama,” Thiele said. “We’ve just accepted some (active duty jets) from Hill (Air Force Base, Utah).” 

Unlike an agreement between active duty units, lending aircraft from the active component to the Air National Guard requires coordination between the Air Force major commands, the federal National Guard Bureau and the Texas Air National Guard’s leadership.

These borrowed aircraft are expected to allow the Gunfighters to get caught up on student production and get ahead going forward, Carlson said.

However, accepting the new aircraft is not as simple as it might seem.

“The front-end of accepting airplanes is a lot of work,” Carlson said.

“One, we have to gain it on the paperwork side, into the maintenance software system,” Carlson said, “and that takes several days to do that per airplane. Then, we physically go out and do inspections to make sure that it’s up to the standards.”

Further, the F-16s from Hill are a more advanced block than the Texas jets, Carlson said. This has required the aircraft maintainers, the avionics specialists in particular, to receive additional training to work on the Block 40 F-16s.

Even before receiving the aircraft, the Gunfighters have to send pilots and maintainers to the lending unit to pick up the aircraft for transport back to Luke.

This – in conjunction with the temporary relocation from Kelly Field to Luke – has created complexity for the Air National Guardsmen’s pay and benefits.

“I think anybody in this unit would say this is the most complex TDY that anybody has ever seen,” said Staff Sgt. John B. Solano, a military pay technician with the 149th Comptroller Flight. 

“Usually our mass TDYs are just two weeks,” Solano said. “Its two weeks there, two weeks back. There’s really not that extensive time for issues to happen, and if it did happen, it would get settled back home.”

Unlike their active duty counterparts, the Gunfighters have to manage through the complexity of a blended workforce of Active Guard Reservists, who are most similar to active duty airmen, dual-status, civilian technicians and traditional drill status Guardsmen.

“There’s a lot of ‘what ifs’ that we couldn’t answer until it happened,” Solano said. “We have individuals flying in and out of Luke to do other TDYs, which are also effecting their current TDY. We’re having to make multiple (travel) amendments to accommodate, to book plane tickets, rental cars, lodging at those duty locations, and in return, to get them back here.”

“Depending on where they’re lodging – whether they’re on or off-base – depends on how much per diem they get. So there’s also adjustments based on their status while they’re here,” Solano said.

Even with these challenges, Carlson said his maintainers are excited to accept the new aircraft.

“We pride ourselves on the cleanliness of our airplanes and the maintenance practices that we do,” Carlson said. “We are very fortunate in the Guard, we have continuity on airplanes. You have guys that have crewed the same airplane for 20 years. They know these airplanes, in-and-out.”

“There’s just a level of pride there that’s difficult to replicate,” Carlson said. “They’ll adopt these aircraft as if they were their own.”

Being away from home longer than expected can be a challenge, but the Gunfighter airmen have embraced the opportunities the trip presents.

“I think morale is really high,” Carlson said. “We’re able to focus on the mission. Another byproduct of that is, we’ve been able to get closer as a unit.”

“We spend a lot more time together, doing things together in the evenings and on the weekends, those are things we’re not able to do at home,” Carlson said. “Even though they miss being home for these months, I think that they cherish the time to build those bonds and to focus on the mission.”

In addition to the personal connections that are enhanced, there are professional benefits for the Gunfighters’ operation at Luke.

“We’re out of our comfort-zone,” Thiele said. “But I think that helps us, as pilots, not flying in our backyard all of the time. Not only for the student perspective, but also the instructors.”

Carlson said much the same from the maintenance standpoint.

“This gives us a great chance to get out of the comfort in our normal environment at home and act like we’re deployed,” Carlson said. “It also allows the maintenance personnel to pack up and operate out of a different location.”

The current student pilots are on track to graduate from their initial qualification course in June. Afterward, they are slated to go to units within the stateside Air Combat Command, U.S. Air Forces in Europe or Pacific Air Forces major commands.

“We continue to accomplish the 149th Fighter Wing’s federal mission,” Thiele said. “We’ve been able to – even with the aircraft issues we’ve had – continue the training role and get product out to the combat Air Force.”