Continued specialized air fighter training is an important foundation for the future security of the United States.
Such training is expected to expand, and much of it happens in the West Valley’s backyard.
Since 1941, Luke Air Force Base has graduated more than 61,000 pilots, and about 75% of the world’s F-35 pilots are trained at Luke AFB.
And now Belgium could be added to the list of allies that train on the F-35 at Luke AFB.
The Secretary of the Air Force recently selected the base as a candidate to host a Belgium F-35A training unit.
Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett said the program could last for up to seven years, starting in 2023.
“Because of Luke AFB’s infrastructure and its experience in hosting international F-35 customers, Luke is uniquely suited to provide an optimal training environment for our Belgian allies,” Ms. Barrett said in a statement. “Our partnership with Belgium has historic importance and will prove vital in our collective futures.”
Next, a site survey is expected to be done at Luke AFB to confirm it meets mission, capacity, environmental, and cost criteria, which will be followed by an environmental impact analysis process.
While officials say it will be a while before details are confirmed, Belgium would be part of a long line of countries that have undergone pilot training at Luke AFB.
Lt. Col. Robert Miller, commander of the 308th Fighter Squadron, an integrated squadron of U.S. and Dutch pilots, said the Belgium training program has not yet been decided and may look very different as they are a Foreign Military Sales unit simply “renting space” at Luke AFB.
But many country’s pilots are already training at Luke AFB — Australia, Italy, Norway, and the Netherlands have pilots fully integrated in squadrons with U.S. pilots. Only allies are allowed to participate in training at Luke AFB.
The international partners that have trained at the base have participated in missions across the world, and almost all of them have had missions in Afghanistan.
Mr. Miller said the relationships with these countries are extremely important and a huge benefit of Luke AFB’s training programs.
“We are training the people we are going to go to war with as allies. It’s one thing to train during peacetime and have a 10- to 20-year commitment to someone, its another thing, when we decide, or when politicians decide we need to go into a conflict, and then to build a rapport with allies within two weeks. You can’t do it,” he said. “God forbid we go into another conflict, but if we do, I have people I have worked with that I have personally flown with over years of training that I can call up immediately that are in Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, or wherever it is and go, ‘Hey I’m bringing a formation of F-16s or F-35s, where should I go? Help me integrate.’ And it’s not this random lieutenant colonel. It’s, oh I know him, we flew together. You can’t put a price on that.”
Each country specifies what type of training they want for each individual pilot. The most common options are initial qualification, transition, senior officer course, or instructor pilot upgrade. Initial qualification is for pilots who have never flown a fighter aircraft before. Transition is for pilots with previous fighter experience (in another airframe). The senior officer course is for senior officers or pilots who need just a quick introduction or a refresher.
Once the country selects the course for their student, they are matched with planned start dates that will include U.S. students as well.
Mr. Miller said the pilots will go through academics and simulators for four to six weeks and then they will start flying in a squadron. The flight portion is anywhere from two weeks to five months, depending on the course, he said.
“The squadron operates as one cohesive unit. This means that an Italian student can fly in a U.S. jet with a Norwegian instructor. Any combination inside of a squadron is permitted, so the training is truly integrated,” Mr. Miller said.
The first four to six weeks of any training is in the classroom. Part of that period is using very advanced video games with desktop trainers and the last part is using extremely realistic flight simulators.
Mr. Miller said that when they finish the academics, the pilots become a member of a squadron and are ready for their first flight.
Thanks to advances with the flight simulators, training time has gone down, which also saves money, he said.
“I always meet pilots after the first flight to get their thoughts on the air plane because this is their first time, and all of them tell me every single time that they were so comfortable in the airplane after [training on] the simulators. It was the easiest transition they’ve seen,” Mr. Miller said. “The simulators are so good that I could look out and see my house. It’s that good. The sounds are the same, the visuals are the same, looking outside is the same. It’s now just real versus a game.”
Luke AFB is home to 95 F-35 and 77 F-16 fighter jets and brings in a total economic impact to Arizona of about $2.4 billion.
Ultimately, Luke AFB and the West Valley are where many pilots call home, both short-term and long-term. Mr. Miller said the international students and trainers love being in Arizona.
He said many trainers have small children and they appreciate the activities available to them — the sports, commerce, shopping and destinations such as Lake Pleasant, the Grand Canyon, the numerous places to hike and camp, and of course the weather.
They feel welcome and integrate easily here, he said.
“Most of these countries are smaller countries that aren’t used to driving 15 hours and still being in the same country. They do enjoy traveling the region,” Mr. Miller said. “It is a desired assignment from their countries to come here and instruct. In fact, they are constantly asking to stay on another year because their families like it so much.”
Philip Haldiman can be reached at 623-876-3697, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @philiphaldiman.