April 8, 2009 (by SrA Ryan Whitney) - A Royal Australian Air Force pilot assigned to the 90th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron has had the opportunity to fly the United States Air Force's premier fighter, the F-22 Raptor, as part of a foreign pilot exchange program.
Squadron Leader (O-4) Matthew Harper is an F-22 instructor pilot and the 90th EFS officer in charge of scheduling and training. Sqn Ldr Harper began his three-year assignment in the spring of 2008.
The pilot exchange program has been an important part of the military relationship between the U.S. and Australia for many years, according to Sqn Ldr Harper. He said it dates back to World War II, when U.S. aircrews traveled to Europe to join the Royal Air Force and RAAF to fly fighters in combat before the U.S. officially entered the war.
"The purpose of the pilot exchange is to embed experienced exchange aircrew within a squadron, allowing them to become part of the host country's Air Force for a three year period," Sqn Ldr Harper said. "During this time, the exchange pilot has an opportunity to learn about USAF procedures, tactics and capabilities and learn about the cultural differences between the two countries and their air forces. Exchange aircrew offer the hosting unit a different perspective than what they are used to."
The exchange program is bilateral, with USAF aircrew integrated into Australian fighter squadrons flying the F/A-18.
During the exchange, the foreign pilots are fully integrated into the squadron. "If the squadron deploys, you are right there with them, filling USAF billets and jobs. It is designed to be a seamless integration," the 11-year pilot and Australian fighter combat instructor (weapons officer) said.
This is the second time Sqn Ldr Harper has been assigned to an allied unit. The first was when he embedded into the Royal Air Force in the United Kingdom.
"I am very fortunate to have been able to fly with both the RAF, and now the USAF," he said. "The opportunity to participate in an exchange program has been invaluable. Having a perspective on our allied partners tactics and capabilities helps enable the RAAF to be in a position to support any integrated operation seamlessly."
Australian fighter pilots are embedded in Navy F/A-18A-FS
, Air Force F-15C/Es, F-16s, and now F-22s. Although the exchange program has been in place for years, Sqn Ldr Harper is the first and only Australian pilot embedded into an F-22 squadron.
"Australia has a history of having an exchange pilot with the 90th back when they flew F-15Es," said Sqn Ldr Harper. "When the 'Dicemen' transitioned to the F-22 the position was continued, allowing the first Australian to fly the F-22."
Sqn Ldr Harper said he has enjoyed his transition from Australia's fourth-generation F/A-18, which he typically flies, to the fifth-generation F-22.
"The F-22 is a phenomenal airframe," he said. "It combines the strengths of stealth, supercruise, thrust vectoring, integrated avionics and sensor fusion, providing the pilot a clear tactical picture that enables them to make very smart tactical decisions. It is the world's most sought-after aircraft, and to be able to fly it is an incredible experience."
The exchange program offers the U.S. and Australia a way to foster friendship while learning new ideas, tactics and techniques from each other, according to Sqn Ldr Harper.
"The experience so far has been fantastic, I don't think I have ever flown with such a professional, proficient team of pilots and maintainers than those in the 90th EFS," Sqn Ldr Harper said. "Programs like this really show the level of commitment between Australia and the United States. Our two countries share a very strong and special friendship."