September 27, 2011 (by Bryan Magaña) - I recently sat down with Lt. Col. Michael Brill, the world's high-time F-16 pilot, to talk about the evolution of the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the pilots who fly it.
Lt. Col. Michael Brill, a 421st EFS pilot, prepares to don his helmet before flying a combat mission over Iraq at Balad AB on May 2nd, 2008. On that day Colonel Brill broke the world record he previously set for F-16 flying hours when he surpassed the 6,000 hours milestone. [USAF photo by SrA. Julianne Showalter]
Since 1980, Brill has racked up more than 6,300 hours in the cockpit, making him the most experienced F-16 pilot in the world. He's called the 419th Fighter Wing home for more than 20 years, now serving as chief of safety, giving him keen insight into what's changed and what's stayed the same.
In 30 years of flying the F-16, the aircraft's capabilities have really evolved. What stands out the most?
The advances in the weapons we carry have had the biggest impact on how we employ. Things like Night Vision Goggles and Data Link have enhanced our ability to fly in poor weather and at night, but the precision munitions have completely changed how we do business. With dumb bombs, we flew at low altitude or in packages of 20-30 aircraft. Now we fly as two-ships at medium altitude.
How has F-16 pilot training changed as a result?
There is 10 times the amount of pre-mission study and planning. The missions and attack profiles are so complicated that guys will have to do hours of study, where before we only looked at an attack for a couple minutes. We used to fly with one or two pieces of paper that had all our mission data. Now we literally have books of data that we fly with.
You've flown around the world, including seven tours in the desert. How have deployments changed, or stayed the same, in 30 years?
The deployments themselves haven't changed too much over the years. They are longer now, but the facilities and the workload remain similar. The big difference since 9/11 is the type of missions. Prior to Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, our missions were primarily airspace denial. In Operations Northern and Southern Watch there weren't any U.S. troops on the ground. Our role is critical now in that the guys with boots on the dirt are relying on us (pilots) for their survival. There is a lot of pressure to have your act together knowing Americans are down there depending on you.
Speaking of changes, you've spent more time in the cockpit than any other F-16 pilot. How have you changed?
I think I've learned that change is inevitable. A lot of people dread change; I've seen so much that I almost welcome it.
As we look forward to fifth-generation aircraft, what legacy will the F-16 leave?
The F-16 will be remembered has one of the best fighters ever produced. It will be in the same class as the P-51 Mustang. I was extremely lucky to be able to fly it for so many years. The 419th was on the leading edge the whole time. We had so many firsts it's impossible to credit it all to luck. The great people we have had and the hard work they put in made us one of the premier wings in the world.