December 14, 2007 (by Lt. Col. Jeff Lovelace) - The 63d Fighter Squadron "Panthers" will graduate 12 new F-16 pilots December 15th.
Class 07-GBG from the 63rd FS graduates pose in front of F-16C block 42 #90-0712 from the same squadron on October 12th, 2007. [USAF photo]
The Panthers welcomed class 07-GBG to the F-16 Basic Course on June 4. They arrived with the single-minded goal of learning to fly the F-16 Fighting Falcon. We taught them you don't fly the F-16, you meld with it to become the weapon system it's meant to be - and that is no easy charge.
This course has unique physical and mental demands like no other, and 07-GBG knows that better than anyone. This group of 12 fledgling aviators began as 13, but early in the program the G-tolerance required in learning to employ the F-16 decreased the class size by one.
They began the course with numerous hours of academics and flight simulators. After five weeks of intense academic training, the fated day arrived and 07-GBG hit the flightline for their first sortie. With instructor pilots in the back seat to ensure their safety (and save their lives if necessary), each pilot had only four flights to master the handling qualities of the F-16. The fifth sortie would mark a milestone in their careers and be a welcomed one for the instructors as well - their first solo flight in the mighty Viper.
Initially, their charge was to employ single-ship, learning how to dogfight and air-to-air refuel. This was followed by complex multi-ship air-to-air tactical maneuvering.
Approximately two-thirds of the way through the course, the students shifted gears and focused their attention on the bread and butter mission of the multi-role F-16, putting bombs on target. Tragically, they were not able to actually fire the 20mm cannon due to a bullet restriction, but they received the necessary training, nonetheless. They then moved on to low and medium altitude weapons deliveries, employing both precision and non-precision weapons on the bombing range and in close air support scenarios supporting troops on the ground.
Eventually, they compiled all of what they had learned into surface attack tactics missions; attacking ground targets after fighting their way through capable red-air threats. The overriding tactical aviation objective of "kill and survive" was briefed on every mission, but was not always achieved. Due to the dynamics of aerial combat, and expected limited ability, sometimes they shot their instructors - not intentionally, of course. Fortunately, simulated weapons don't have a lasting effect, except for the $35 penance for committing an act of fratricide in the 63rd. But along the way, they learned invaluable lessons that will keep them and their wingmen alive in actual combat.
The final series of sorties forced students to execute all previous training and employ as part of a national campaign. "Operation PANTHER PROWL" found students flying in 12-ship packages opposed by red-air aggressors on the Barry M. Goldwater Range Complex south of Luke. The realistic operation incorporated all aspects of combat operations, including pivotal support from the 56th Range Management Office, 56th Operations Support Squadron agencies such as weather and intelligence, and weapons director support from the 107th and 607th Air Control Squadrons who provided situational awareness through their vast radar picture. Each day of the operation was linked together, simulating "real-world" taskings faced by fellow F-16 pilots engaged today in Operations IRAQI FREEDOM and ENDURING FREEDOM.
The charge of the 63d Fighter Squadron is to create F-16 fighter pilots. Single-seat fighter operations are dangerous and incredibly demanding. Truly, being a fighter pilot is so much more. It entails unquestioned professionalism, exacting execution, blunt feedback and camaraderie that transcends generations. It is a charge we take very seriously in this wing, and will continue to do so. There is a very real likelihood they will be flying their first combat missions by the end of next year. It comforts me to know every Thunderbolt who came into contact with them at Luke during their tenure prepared them for that inevitability. I've told them this is a team effort like no other. I know they understand that. From the young 56th Mission Support Group Airman who helped them check into billeting on their arrival, to the 56th Medical Group technician who took their blood pressure during their last trip to the flight surgeon, to the 56th Operations Group Airman who inspected their flying gear, to the 56th Maintenance Group crew chief who launched them on their last sortie; these warriors are the very culmination of the mission of Luke. Each and every Thunderbolt should be proud of their accomplishment.
In the seven months this group of young officers has been at Luke, they've worked many long hours and galvanized themselves into a tight-knit group. There were some trials and tribulations along the way, several repeated rides for not meeting the high standards of the 56th Fighter Wing, and dare I say some concerns about course completion, but the one thing they never did was lose their focus and esprit de corps.
One constant I have observed in the classes that have passed through the Panthers is the professional quality of the officers we are sent. Another constant is the quality of instruction and training they received at the hands of our instructors, both civilian and military.
Twelve world-class F-16 fighter pilots will receive their graduation certificates on Saturday night. While graduation from Luke closes one chapter for America's newest F-16 fighter pilots, it is only the beginning of a much more demanding and exciting one. This should be called an initiation instead of a graduation. Their tactical aviation careers are just beginning. They must never stop learning or stop trying to be the absolute best they can be.
The Panther family would like to wish the fighter pilots of class 07-GBG all the best in their Air Force careers and a steady hand as they forge themselves into the calculating instruments of national policy our great country demands. To Daali, Soda, Stinger, 4, Cracker, Duk Dong, Diaper, McSkillet, Paris, Woody, India, and Lefty, it has been an honor to fly with you. Godspeed, and good hunting.