TUCSON, Ariz. - While the Republic of Iraq anticipates an initial delivery of F-16 Fighting Falcons in September 2014, the pilots who will fly them have been learning the ropes of the aircraft with the Arizona Air National Guard's 162nd Fighter Wing.
The Iraqi pilots join other international students at the wing, which operates the Air Force's international F-16 training academy. A delegation of senior Iraqi Air Force officers recently visited the unit to assess their students' progress and reaffirm their partnership with the desert fighter wing.
"We have an opportunity to work with a critical partner in a very strategic region of world," said Air Force Col. Mick McGuire, commander of the wing. "They have an opportunity to see what a professional operation we are and as a result of their visit I think we'll have a long-standing relationship with the Iraqi Air Force - at least through 2020 - training F-16 pilots and providing a true coalition warfighting partner for the United States and an ability for them to defend their country for years to come."
And for some of the Iraqi pilots, flying the F-16 has been a long-standing goal. In 1986, Iraqi Air Force Brig. Gen. Abdulhussein Lafta Ali Ali flew Soviet-era MiG-21s but said he dreamed of flying the F-16.
Now visiting Tucson as a senior officer in his air force's operations directorate, he flew with American pilots to experience the F-16's capabilities and the unique demands of U.S. fighter pilot training.
"The F-16 project is most important for our two nations," he said. "This is the first time Iraqis have flown F-16s. It's important for us to understand the training schedule and syllabus for our student pilots because the first pilots who train here will one day be examples for our other pilots."
After his orientation flight, Abdulhussein noted the F-16's high thrust to weight ratio, maneuverability, and design which allows pilots to better endure G forces.
"We reached more than seven Gs during our flight, and the [tilt-back] angle of the seat made it easy. In the MiG-21 the seat is more vertical making G forces difficult," he said. "This is the best aircraft for us and this is the best place for our pilots to train."
The cadre here trains more than 70 international student pilots per year, offering several training programs that range from initial F-16 training to qualify new pilots to an advanced weapons course. Under the current contract between the U.S. and Iraq, the wing will train roughly 30 Iraqi pilots.
Until they receive their own fighters, the initial group of Iraqi pilots will remain in Tucson. After they complete the six-to-eight month basic course they will continue through flight lead upgrade training, additional seasoning and instructor pilot certification.
"The students get the best possible flight education when they come here," said McGuire, "and our Airmen take great pride in their mission - they see the big picture."
According to McGuire, a tailored syllabus, great weather and access to a variety of training ranges are among several factors that make the wing successful in training pilots.
"We average 17,000 flying hours per year, and we're able to do that because of Arizona's year-round flying weather," said McGuire. "Less than 3 percent of scheduled sorties here are canceled due to weather," he said.
Those elements allow the wing's cadre of 80 instructor pilots to execute an aggressive training schedule, while building greater partnerships at the same time.
"Partnership building it's about flying together, operating together and training together so if we have to, we can fight together," said McGuire. "On a deeper level, it's about friendships. With F-16s in operation around the world, creating the foundation of a relationship is absolutely invaluable."