August 12, 2011 (by SMSgt. Larry Schneck) - Statistically, for every F-16 fighter squadron in the U.S. Air Force, only about 10 percent of pilots are certified to direct an air strike on ground targets. These controllers in the sky prioritize battlefield targets and act as gatekeepers for the ground commander.
Maj. Tom Juntunen, 310th FS instructor pilot with more than 1,500 flying hours in the F-16, conducts a preflight inspection before taking off to participate in a close air support exercise on August 2nd, 2011 at Luke AFB. Juntunen's job is to certify a select number of F-16 pilots to be controllers in the sky.
Luke is the only F-16 forward air controller (airborne), or FAC(A), school house.
"We are trained to support the (U.S.) Army commander's objectives on the ground," said Maj. Tom Juntunen, 310th Fighter Squadron instructor pilot, and native of Middlebury, Ind. "We work to support the ground commander. One of the cool things about our mission is we are certified to call in air strikes on ground targets."
Once they are trained to perform the job, F-16
FAC(A)s are known as "fast FACs" in contrast to the enlisted joint terminal air controller on the ground. The FAC(A) pilot flies above the battle and works with the ground commander and JTACs to engage enemy targets. This speed and flexibility of air power allows the FAC(A) to rapidly develop targets and provide fire support.
"The FAC(A) is an integral part of close air support," said Lt. Col. Todd Murphey, 310th FS
commander. "How we use aircraft has evolved significantly since World War I. Today, air power can decide the outcome of a battle, and the FAC(A) plays an integral role allocating ordnance to the right targets at the right time."
Luke has the largest reserve of F-16 experience. Many pilots have almost 2,000 flying hours with much of that time in the cockpit of a Fighting Falcon.
Juntunen, himself, has flown more than 1,500 hours in the F-16. He returned to the base four years ago to become an instructor pilot and teach lead pilots the skills to become battle space analysts.
"The ability to prioritize is a quality of a FAC(A)," Juntunen said. "He has to be able to multitask and keep aircraft organized and executing the mission game plan. He's a battle coordinator in the sky."
The tactics and procedures of air-ground cooperation have changed over the years. Many new skills and tactics have actually been developed from combat experience, current and past.
Murphey believes the F-16 as a platform for forward air control has significantly enhanced support for the warfighter on the ground. Ordnance dropped in close proximity to friendly forces requires precision. There is little room for error.
"What we provide is faster and more efficient target destruction," said Capt. Jason Clugston, FAC(A) student pilot. "I am fortunate to have flown in Iraq as well as been on the ground in Korea with the Army for a year. Each of those experiences helps me see the bigger picture of what we can provide the Army from the air."
In Vietnam, FAC(A)s were initially slow moving aircraft such as the OV-10A Bronco. But by war's end, the first "fast FACs" were employed, led by Col. George Day. Jets increased the speed at which a FAC could get to a battle area, increased survivability and carried ordnance to employ on the battlefield in time-critical situations.
An F-16 pilot has to be a flight lead with two to three years of experience in order to be selected for the FAC(A) course. When the officers return to Luke for what is called "top off" training, they go through the course that begins with classroom instruction and finishes with night flights over the Barry M. Goldwater Range and a force-on-force scenario as a graduation exercise.
"Every pilot assigned to Luke is an instructor pilot and almost every pilot in the 310th FS is a FAC(A) instructor," Juntunen said. "So, that's the reason we're able to have 15 to 20 FAC(A) graduates per year."
Juntunen feels his course gets pilots ready to think on their own and analyze a situation. When the student pilots complete the training, they possess the confidence and skills to be a forward air controller in the air. In the years that follow, they accumulate the experience that comes from time.
"The FAC(A) program boosts the CAS
knowledge and skill level of every F-16 unit in the CAF," Murphey said. "Between wars, we often forget about the importance of CAS and relearn the same lessons from previous wars integrating with the Army. By training F-16 FAC(A)s at Luke, every F-16 base has FAC(A)s available to teach and train other pilots in the CAS mission and increase their abilities."
F-16 FAC(A)s from Luke join their operational units in the field with the analytical skills to protect friendly forces and maximize target destruction. The outcome of the battle depends on the pilot in the sky to do more than just effectively drop ordnance on objectives. He must act as a gatekeeper and controller of the battle below while flying above the fight.