I’m an F-16 pilot in the US Air Force. As I write this, the F-16 is still the Air Force’s premier lightweight multi-role fighter. It has had that title ever since it was introduced in the late 1970s, and will continue to bear that honor until the first F-35 rolls into the operational Air Force somewhere around 2013. While the F-16 (and the F-15) may have been supplanted as the hottest, fastest things in the Air Force inventory by the F-22 and soon the F-35, we Viper drivers (and Eagle drivers) will always have the honor of being the first generation of pilots to fly jets capable of pulling 9G, which for now is at the limit of human endurance. Perhaps someday humans will be able to handle greater forces, but it is widely believed that machines that can outperform humans will eventually be doing the hard fighting.
I began learning to fly the F-16 after graduating from Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training and Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals. Like most F-16 pilots, I went to Luke AFB; many older Viper drivers went to MacDill, others train with one of the Air National Guard flight training units. The F-16 schoolhouse is referred to as an RTU (Replacement Training Unit) or FTU (Fighter Training Unit).
Everyone starts by going through a month of academics and simulators. The first flightline phase is called transition phase, where you learn to fly the jet on instruments, in formation; you also learn the advanced handling characteristics. This phase ends with an instrument & qualification checkride.
Next comes the air-to-air phase. This starts with basic fighter maneuvers (BFM), where you learn to chase another F-16 down and crush yourself into the seat at nine times the force of gravity, or defend yourself from another F-16, or how to turn a neutral pass into your advantage. Essentially, you learn how to fight 1v1. After BFM comes air combat maneuvering (ACM), in which you learn to fight with an element mate against one or two other adversaries. You also get a series of tactical intercepts (TI) flights, where you learn how to start from 40 miles from another aircraft (or element) and fly to a merge. The air-to-air phase ends with air combat tactics (ACT), where you get introduced to 2vX tactics starting with you in your combat air patrol (CAP) and performing an intercept and then fight the adversary at the merge.
After the air-to-air phase comes the air-to-ground phase. We actually started this with low-altitude step-down training, which had the students taking the aircraft down to 500′ to do advanced handling characteristics and intercepts; things we already knew how to do, only now we were doing them very close to the ground! This lead us into low altitude navigation, which was the way we went to the range for our basic surface attack (BSA) and surface attack tactics (SAT) rides. BSA was simply going to one of several nearby bombing ranges that was neatly planned out with plowed-out circles and lines on the desert floor and learning how to drop bombs and strafe with the 20mm cannon. SAT was a flight out to a tactical range where various old trucks, planes, and shipping containers dotted the desert floor so we could learn to pick out our particular target amongst several possibilities. Back in my time, we also flew a couple of flights with the AGM-65 Maverick (including one night flight that included a 1v1 intercept); students still do a night flight, but I don’t think there’s a Maverick flight anymore. We also flew one or two close air support missions out to the tactical range; the instructor played the role of a forward air controller and designated a target for us to strike.
After we as students finished all these flights, we were turned loose to follow-on training (except those who were destined for a Block 30 F-16); we either began learning the academics involved with the Block 50 and Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD), or we split off to what is now the night systems course (back then we learned medium-altitude night SAT with the LANTIRN system and laser-guided bombs (LGB)). After we finished, we went to whatever other cleanup training might be required such as water/land survival, and branched out into the various F-16 units worldwide.
The mighty Viper has flown me into a lot of places. I started off at Spangdahlem Air Base (AB), Germany. We flew quite a bit, often doing two missions in one day utilizing hot-pit refueling. We also got used to flying in fog, rain, snow, and clouds from 300′ to 30,000′. I had opportunities to fly from there to the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, Turkey; one time we flew the jets back to Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, NV for a RED FLAG exercise. My next assignment was Kunsan AB, Republic of Korea. In Korea we got to fly close to the Demilitarized Zone several times. We also got used to flying in severe haze. I got to fly to Singapore, but for the most part treaty obligations kept the jets on the peninsula and deploying was not the norm. My most recent Viper assignment was Misawa AB, Japan. I unfortunately didn’t get to go anywhere from Japan.