Flight of the Falcon / Hill commemorates 30 years of F-16 operations
Monday, February 16, 2009
By Mitch Shaw
Standard-Examiner Davis Bureau
HILL AIR FORCE BASE -- The first F-16 touched down at Hill 30 years ago, signifying the beginning of what has been an historic relationship between the base and fighter jet.
On Jan. 6, 1979, the 388th Fighter Wing started its conversion to the F-16A Fighting Falcon, making it the first fully operational F-16 Fighter Wing in the entire Air Force.
In March 1981, the wing conducted its first overseas deployment to Norway.
On Jan. 28, 1984, five years after the 388th received its first F-16, the 419th Fighter Wing accepted the Air Force Reserve's first Fighting Falcon.
"We (Hill) have a history of firsts," 419th spokesman Bryan Magana said of the two wing's 30th and 25th anniversaries with the F-16.
Today, the 388th has 110 pilots, while its reserve counterpart, the 419th, has 27. The men and women who fly the jet say it's come a long way in 30 years. Evolution in technology has given pilots new capabilities that once existed only in the movies.
Those capabilities came about largely through a $2 billion-plus Air Force F-16 upgrade program called the Common Configuration Implementation Program.
The program, which the Air Force began in September 2001, provides enhanced mission capabilities and a common avionics configuration to about 650 Block 40, 42, 50 and 52 Air Force and Air National Guard F-16s.
The upgrade provided structural and electrical software enhancements for the jet.
A new display in their helmet visor allows pilots to select a target without changing the jet's direction as sensors follow the pilot's head to the target and displays targeting information over their eyes as they launch.
The CCIP upgrade also included the "Link 16" system, which, among other things, helps pilots keep formation at night, when visibility is low and other planes are occupying airspace.
"It does seem pretty futuristic," said Lt. Col. Jack Sine, a pilot with the 388th. "It's worth the money we invested."
One Hill pilot said even with all the upgrades since its inception, the jet still flies the same, comparing it to a slightly altered ride at an amusement park.
"The advance in weapons have changed the way we fly in combat." said Lt. Col. Mike Brill, a full-time reservist with the 419th. "(But) the airplane flies the same it always has -- imagine being on a roller coaster that you can actually steer."
Brill, much like Hill's two fighter wings, is no stranger to history. He is the most experienced F-16 pilot from among 25 nations flying the jet. In May 2008, Brill became the first F-16 pilot to surpass 6,000 flying hours after completing a combat mission at Iraq's Balad Air Base. He was also the first pilot to reach the 4,000-hour mark in 1998 and the 5,000-hour mark in 2002.
His 6,000-hour milestone is equivalent to traveling nearly 2.5 million miles -- enough to circle the earth 97 times. In October 2001, Brill was part of the first reservist unit to fly F-16s into Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Base historian Ralph Jackson said Hill has become synonymous with the F-16.
According to Jackson, Hill was the first to participate in the Air Force's "c-strike," an exercise demonstrating the jet's capability to deploy overseas. On Dec. 4, 1996, the F-16s 5 millionth flying hour was recorded at Hill. Units from the 388th and 419th have supported the first Gulf War and provide continual support to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Brill summed up the F-16's legacy with a fitting allegory.
"Think of it in terms of a president and how a lot of times, his legacy is not determined until years after he passes away," he said. "Already, the F-16s are pretty much acknowledged by everyone as one of the best fighter planes that have been built."