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Panthers graduate final class of 6 F-16 pilots

April 2, 2009 (by Lt. Col. Jack Maixner) - The 63rd Fighter Squadron "Panthers" will graduate six new F-16 Fighting Falcon pilots Saturday -- the unit's final class before being deactivated in May.

1st Lt. Chris Houdek, 63rd FS student pilot, and Maj. James McHenry, 63rd FS instructor pilot, wait to disembark F-16D block 42 #88-0158 on March 24th, 2009 after the final instructional flight of a student pilot assigned to the 63rd FS. The 63rd FS will deactivate in May and Lieutenant Houdek was the last student pilot to fly with the squadron. [USAF photo by Deborah Silliman Wolfe]

The Panthers welcomed class 08-JBG to the F-16 Basic Course on July 30. They began the course with numerous hours of academics and flight simulators. After five weeks of intense academic training, the fated day arrived and 08-JBG hit the flightline for their first sortie. With veteran instructor pilots in the back seat to ensure their safety, 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 - 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 and bullets on target.

Eventually, they combined all their skills into surface attack tactics missions; attacking ground targets after fighting their way through capable air and ground threats. The overriding tactical aviation objective of "kill and survive" was briefed on every mission, but was not always achieved. One mistake by anyone in the four-ship can lead to death for the rest. Flexibility is the key to airpower and they were tested by last minute changes in targets, threats and weather.

Next came the opportunity to call upon all previous training and employ it as part of a national campaign. Operation Panther Prowl found students flying in 10-ship packages opposed by red-air aggressors on the Barry M. Goldwater Range complex southwest of Luke Air Force Base. The realistic campaign 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.

The final hurdle was learning how to employ the F-16 at night. Air Force combat operations are conducted at night just as often as in the day. In the night systems phase, they learned how to fly and fight while wearing night vision goggles and employing laser-guided bombs. They now have the skills necessary to join operational squadrons all over the world.

The charge of the 63rd FS 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 these pilots will be flying their first combat missions by the end of this year. It comforts me to know every Thunderbolt who came into contact with them at Luke during their tenure prepared them for that inevitability. Every agency on the base played an important role in training these pilots - the 56th Medical Group got them ready to fly and kept them flying; the 56th Mission Support Group maintained facilities for them to train in; the 56th Training Squadron gave them the knowledge base they needed to fly and employ; the 56th Maintenance Group provided mission capable airplanes; the 56th RMO provided realistic targets and threats on the Goldwater Range; and the list goes on. Everyone at Luke should take pride in this accomplishment!

The Panther family would like to wish the fighter pilots of class 08-JBG all the best in their Air Force careers as they continue to hone their skills to fight and win America's wars. To Clam, Lobster, Switch, Hairy, Hoover and Blue; it has been a privilege and honor to fly with you. Godspeed and check six.

Courtesy of 63rd Fighter Squadron commander

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