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After UPT: Journey to an F-16

With 17 different F-16 units in 13 states, chances are that if you want to fly fighters in the Air Reserve Component (ARC–the Guard and Reserve) you stand your best chance of doing so by opting for the Viper.  For a map of these units, see BogiDope’s helpful map page. This article is intended to reveal what your life will look like after you impress the hiring board, get selected by an ARC F-16 unit, and make your way through Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) and into Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals (IFF) and the F-16 basic qualification course (B-course).  For an excellent in-depth look at UPT, see the multiple BogiDope articles on the subject, including the Winning UPT series and the UPT scoring system explained.  

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals
  2. Centrifuge, SERE, and Water Survival
  3. The B-Course
  4. MQT
  5. Flight Lead and Instructor Upgrades

Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals

You’ve done it!  There are shiny new silver wings on your chest and UPT is finally behind you.  After nearly a year of learning to fly the Air Force way, you’re now finally beginning your transition to life as a fighter pilot.  The first step in this journey starts with the USAF’s Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals course, known by its acronym IFF. Established in 1969, it was originally called “Lead-in Fighter Training,” or LIFT for short, and was intended to bridge the gap between UPT flying and learning a fighter.  

The IFF program has not changed much since its inception 50 years ago: formation, basic fighter maneuvers (BFM), and unguided bomb deliveries if you’re going to an aircraft that engages in surface attack.  Some denigrate the program for its lack of application in modern fighters. While that subject is worthy of an article in itself, I will say from experience that the mentality developed in IFF served me well in my years as an F-16 pilot.  Future iterations may evolve to include virtual or augmented reality training and be more closely tied to fighter squadrons. For further reading, see Gen Mike Holmes’ article on the future of IFF.

For now, I will focus on IFF in its current form.

It will be immediately apparent you are no longer in UPT when you set foot in your IFF squadron.  The objective has shifted: evolve this newly minted military pilot into a fighter pilot capable of surviving in a single-seat, high-performance fighter.  In its current incarnation, IFF still utilizes the T-38C and focuses heavily on the basics of visual formations, basic fighter maneuvers (BFM), and basic surface attack (BSA).  The IFF program varies based on your eventual aircraft, but as a rule it is about 16 flights and around six weeks in length. If you are going to an F-16, you’ll get twelve formation and BFM flights followed by four or five BSA flights.  The USAF conducts IFF at Randolph AFB, TX, Sheppard AFB, TX, Columbus AFB, MS, and Vance AFB, OK. Usually, you will attend IFF at the same base you went through UPT, but sometimes the USAF will require you to move.

One of the most important elements of IFF are the standards.  Every fighter squadron has a set of standards that enable squadron pilots to operate more efficiently together by codifying required tasks into standard planning, execution, and debrief contracts.  IFF is your first taste of fighter squadron standards. You will be expected to adhere to them rigidly, from briefing board preparation and etiquette to formation positions and radio calls during your flight.  Exact timing, exact positions, and exact words are paramount. This may seem over the top and excessive at first, but it instills solid habits that are vital later. For example, missing a check-in during a Red Flag with 60+ airplanes all on the same radio frequency can delay or mess up millions of dollars worth of training.  So start early with those good, disciplined habits!

Two IFF Instructor Pilots prepare for a sortie  (Photo credit: Airman Hannah Bean)

BFM

After a couple of formation rides to get you accustomed to the standards, you’ll begin BFM.  You’ll begin with offensive BFM, where you’ll start the engagement in a position of advantage against a single opposing T-38 and be expected to win the fight with simulated missile and gun shots.  Both stick-and-rudder as well as mentality are important. To win, you’ll need to maneuver your aircraft with both aggression and discipline to extract a much higher level of performance than previously exercised in UPT.  You’ll be expected to fly close to the operating G-limits of the T-38 and maintain G loadings that will test your physical stamina. Most importantly you’ll be expected to achieve a simulated kill.

After offensive BFM, you’ll switch roles for the next several flights and practice defensive maneuvers.  You’ll start with the instructor in an offensive and advantageous position with the expectation that you survive the encounter by flying specific game plans and maneuvers under G while looking over your shoulder and keeping sight of a maneuvering adversary.  Sounds simple. It is not. The most important lesson I took from defensive BFM in IFF was not necessarily the maneuvers themselves (F-16s fly defensive BFM a little differently). It was to never give up, even when the engagement looked bad. A fighter pilot never accepts a sub-optimal situation–he or she fights to improve it no matter what.  I first encountered that in IFF and it has been a part of my fighter pilot life ever since.

Last in the BFM queue is high aspect BFM.  This phase consists of “neutral” setups, in which you start out pointing at your instructor.  It directly tests your ability to put the jet right on the edge of the performance envelope; you cannot win without extracting every last bit of performance from the venerable old T-38.  Further, it will teach you how to recognize an evolving sight picture and select an appropriate gameplan in response. You must master all this while adhering to the squadron standards–being in the right formation position to set up the engagement, responding correctly to radio calls, and aggressively returning to formation after the engagement to set up the next one.

While not all of the skills are directly translated to flying F-16 BFM, many of the core concepts and sight pictures are the same.  More importantly, the mentality and confidence in handling an aircraft at the upper limits are directly translatable to flying any other fighter.  If you perform well enough in the early rides and demonstrate that mentality, you’ll be trusted to fly solo against your instructor rather than having an instructor in your backseat watching your every move.  Even today when I fly I still rely on those habit patterns established in IFF BFM: putting your jet in the right place at the right time without delay.

IFF instructors
An IFF student demonstrates some BFM concepts while his instructor watches.  (Photo credit: Don Lindsey)

BSA

Rounding out IFF, you’ll get an introduction to basic surface attack: bomb dropping.  You’ll get to go out in a four-ship to a bombing range and practice dive bombing and strafe attacks in your T-38.  Again, you’ll be evaluated on your ability to stay in the right position in relation to the other jets on the range, achieving near exact attack parameters, and precisely employing simulated ordnance.  The T-38C simulates all of this, so you won’t actually be dropping or shooting anything; that said, the skill sets developed are identical to if you were dropping munitions. As with BFM, the point is to develop solid habit patterns, an effective cross-check of your aircraft and others, and an aggressive, disciplined mentality with respect to diving at the ground in a high performance jet.  Do this successfully, and your first hurdle after UPT will be behind you.

An IFF Student’s Day

A typical day in the life of an IFF student includes: showing to the squadron several hours before your brief time to prepare the flight briefing boards (flight information on a white board that your instructor will use to brief you), study, and get lineup cards ready.  Lineup cards contain flight information and avionics setup data you’ll use during your flight. Depending on squadron standards, you may be expected to look up weather, NOTAMs, and other pertinent administrative data to brief the flight. At brief time, your flight lead will brief the flight, usually around 45-55 minutes.  He or she will ask you questions on the flight, and you’ll be expected to answer them all correctly. Your instructor will sit in the brief with you, and then sit in your backseat during the flight. After brief, you’ll get your flight equipment on and step to the jets. You’ll perform all the pre-flight and walkaround tasks with your instructor observing you.  You’ll fly the sortie, come back in the building, and your flight lead will lead the debrief with your instructor present and also giving inputs or instruction. Most of the time it will be set up this way, with two instructors to your one student. Debriefs generally last 1-2 hours, but can go longer depending on how well the flight went. After debrief is over, you’ll have some study time.  Repeat the next day!

Centrifuge, SERE, and Water Survival

Your journey towards the cockpit of an F-16 does not only include flying training; it also includes several USAF ground training courses.  At some point after UPT but before starting the B-course, you’ll re-visit the centrifuge (this time accomplishing the F-16 profile), go to Fairchild AFB in Spokane, WA, for your Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training, and top it off with a trip to either Pensacola, FL or Fairchild AFB, WA for Water Survival training.  For an in-depth look at SERE and Water Survival, check out our previous look at the two programs here.

Centrifuge

The centrifuge visit will mirror the visit that you took in UPT at the beginning of T-38s.  You will take a trip up to Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, OH and spin several times over the course of a day.  The main difference between the UPT T-38 profile and the F-16 profile is the G loading. For the T-38, the profile mainly focuses in the 5G range.  For the F-16, you’ll conduct different profiles that usually work 7-9Gs for varying amounts of time to make sure that your G-strain technique is sound and you can handle multiple pulls to high G.  Listen to the instructors, practice your G-strain, and have confidence in yourself. I found that pulling Gs in the F-16 was easier than in the centrifuge, so if you can do it at Wright-Patterson, you’ll be able to handle the jet.  If you have some time (and who doesn’t during home quarantine?), search for USAF Centrifuge on YouTube.  You won’t be disappointed.

The Centrifuge at Wright-Patterson AFB. It looks so cool sitting still…   Photo credit: 711th HPW

SERE

Another requirement before becoming combat mission ready (CMR) in a fighter squadron is SERE training.  Most pilots in the training pipeline accomplish SERE between UPT and B-Course; though it is not unheard of for someone to get SERE done after the B-course.  SERE is one of the tougher courses you’ll encounter in the USAF. If you’re going through the full course as a UPT hire, you’ll end up spending over a month at Fairchild learning survival skills and techniques, practicing what you learned while out in the field, and then learning how to evade capture, resist your captors if you do happen to be taken prisoner, and learn methods of escaping confinement.  A lot of the course is controlled or classified information, so I’ll just say that this course is challenging, both mentally and physically. The training is excellent and I’m glad I went through it.

Nice and cozy — a SERE Instructor demonstrates how to build a shelter.  Photo credit: A1C Shanice Williams-Jones

Water Survival

The last CMR requirement is Water Survival.  This course is only a few days at Fairchild AFB, WA.  Needless to say, this course is a lot more fun in the summer months.  At water survival you’ll learn how all of your gear works if you end up parachuting into the ocean (or a very large lake).  After spending some quality time floating by yourself in a one-man raft, you’ll learn to appreciate the array of survival equipment that goes into keeping you alive in the event of an ejection.  

After finally completing all of the training courses and requirements after UPT, you’re finally ready for the ball game: the F-16 Basic Qualification Course, or B-course for short.  This second part will focus on the B-course and then life when you first show up to your F-16 squadron, specifically MQT. I’ll stick mainly with the flying aspects of MQT, but for a detailed look at some other aspects of new wingman life, see Jason’s article about being a Snacko

The B-Course

The F-16 B-course is designed to make the student pilot proficient as a wingman in all aspects of F-16 employment.  This includes BFM (again), Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM–or BFM with a wingman), Tactical Intercepts, Basic Surface Attack (BSA), Surface Attack Tactics (SAT), Close Air Support (CAS), and an introduction to missionized air-to-air and Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD, pronounced seed).  While you may have flown as the lead jet in a 2-ship in UPT and IFF, in the B-course you fly the entirety of the course as a wingman with the notable exception of your initial instrument checkride. You’ll be expected to practice the same discipline and contract adherence that you learned in IFF, except now you’ll have a vast array of new systems and weapons to master in a much more powerful and maneuverable aircraft.

The USAF conducts F-16 B-course training at Holloman AFB, NM, Kelly AFB, TX, Tucson International Airport, AZ, and Luke AFB, AZ.  The Texas Air National Guard at Kelly conducts one B-course per year, and Tucson only one or two, so you have a much higher chance of going to Holloman or Luke.  When you first arrive at one of these bases, you’ll begin the B-course with several weeks of academics and testing. These academics cover all the basic systems of the F-16, from the engine to hydraulics and cockpit layout.  Contract instructors teach the majority of the basic classes, but as new weapons or tactics get introduced you’ll see some of the Air Force instructor pilots (IPs) teaching the courses. You’ll get tested on all of the academic topics to ensure that you are retaining the information, but also for the IPs to start seeing performance compared to your classmates.  During the initial academic phase, you’ll also start simulators to complement classroom instruction.

The Basics

The initial flying phase is called the transition phase, or TR for short.  The B-course syllabus has undergone several revisions in recent years, but the goal of the TR phase is to end it with you passing your initial qualification/instrument checkride.  Typically, you will accomplish several TR simulators, including instrument flying and emergency procedures. These will culminate with a checkride sim called an Instrument Emergency Procedures Evaluation, or IEPE.  Pass this, and you’ll be cleared to go fly solo in the F-16 and begin your TR flying. After several flights as wingman of a two-ship practicing navigation, instrument procedures, and pattern work, you’ll fly your checkride.  Completion of the initial qualification checkride signals the end of TR and the beginning of BFM.

The F-16 B-course BFM phase is very similar to IFF.  You’ll fly offensive, defensive, and high aspect, typically 3-4 of each type.  Almost all of the rides you will be solo with your flight lead also acting as your instructor.  In offensive BFM, you’ll be expected to remain on the attack and end the engagement by executing a valid simulated gun kill.  You’ll pull high G and operate your avionics, radar, and weapons systems while doing it. It is challenging and immensely fun.  Defensive BFM is also similar to IFF; you’ll start with your instructor behind your jet and be expected to execute high G turns, gun jinks, and utilize the F-16’s defensive systems to defeat your instructor’s gun and missile shots.  Again like IFF, this is a test of your mental fortitude and desire to win, even when faced with a disadvantageous starting position. High aspect BFM in the F-16 is next. You’ll fight your instructor from a neutral starting position, pointed at each other, and be expected to “wring the jet out” by optimizing turning performance and G loads.  Keeping an eye on your adversary, applying an appropriate game plan, and working your weapons systems while under G are all vital elements of winning a high aspect fight in the F-16. 

 

Checking six during a BFM engagement.  Photo credit: USAF File Photo

Air-to-Air

After you complete BFM, you’ll start fighting as a two-jet team (called an “element” in the USAF) with your instructor against an adversary aircraft, usually another F-16 flown by a B-course IP.   Finally your IP is on your side! This is called Air Combat Maneuvering, or ACM. You’ll learn how to detect threats and fight as a team, optimizing your aircraft’s systems while staying in lethal formation, and, most importantly, not hitting your flight lead or the opposing aircraft.  Remember how your IFF instructors emphasized being in the correct formation position? Now it’s paying off…

Using the concepts you learned in ACM, you’ll slowly expand your engagement envelope out from within visual range (WVR) to beyond visual range (BVR) using your jet’s radar and threat detection systems.  You’ll begin by executing two-ship element intercepts with your instructor, simulating long-range missile shots and learning the two-ship foundational contracts of F-16 air-to-air employment. Eventually, you’ll add another student’s two-ship element to yours and become a four-ship, also called a “flight.”  You’ll practice basic four-ship flight air-to-air tactics with IPs leading the flight.

At some point in all of this learning, you’ll (hopefully) get to go rejoin with a tanker aircraft and learn how to aerial refuel.  You’ll also likely have a night air-to-air phase in which you learn the basics of flying on night vision goggles (NVGs) and learn how to execute basic air-to-air tactics at night.

Air-to-Ground

After air-to-air, you’ll transition to Basic Surface Attack (BSA).  Like BFM, this phase mirrors IFF except that the flights are longer in duration and will likely include some sort of low altitude navigation and ingress.  You’ll finally experience 500 miles an hour at 500 feet above the ground and you’ll never be the same. Most sorties end at a controlled bombing range where you’ll practice dropping inert (no explosives) unguided bombs and get to shoot the 20mm Gatling gun.  As the BSA phase progresses, the syllabus will introduce more complex precision-guided munitions (PGMs) like the laser-guided Paveway II and the GPS guided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM/LJDAM). Having built a solid foundation of precisely maneuvering to deliver unguided weapons, you’ll now practice the more systems intensive PGM attacks and even get to drop inert versions of those weapons on the range.

Having mastered basic weapons deliveries, you’ll get to apply these in some specific mission scenarios as both a four-ship flight or a two-ship element.  You’ll practice various tactics designed to get your formations into contested airspace and deliver weapons quickly and accurately. For several flights, you’ll practice Close Air Support (CAS), which is defined as detailed integration in close proximity to friendly ground forces.  You and your flight lead will coordinate with a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) on the ground to find and engage targets supporting a ground force, again putting into practice those foundational skills from IFF (putting your jet in the right place) and prior BSA rides (accurate weapon deliveries and awareness of your surroundings).  Then, you’ll do all of those surface attack flights again…but at night on NVGs.  You’ll finally start to feel like a real F-16 pilot. Well, F-16 wingman at least.

 

Slingin’ bombs on the range!   Photo Credit: Ken Hackman

 

A B-Courser’s Day

A day in the life of a B-course student mirrors IFF.  You’ll show up hours prior to your flight and prepare mission materials.  Your IP will brief and debrief your flight, asking questions along the way to make sure you are studying.  Any spare time before or after your flight will be spent in the squadron “vault,” or classified mission planning and study area.  The main difference between B-course and IFF is the vast amount of weapons systems and threat knowledge that you’ll need to master as an F-16 pilot.  Studying, then, becomes crucial to your performance in the air: you cannot win against a threat you don’t know anything about. On days when you’re not scheduled to fly, you’ll likely have more academics or simulators to fill your time and further your knowledge.  It is a classic “drink from the fire hose” scenario.  

As the B-course comes to a close, you may get to participate in some larger exercises designed to show you how your flight of four jets fits into a larger force package.  You’ll get introduced to more advanced tactics like SEAD in preparation for your transition into the combat air force (CAF). Before you know it, you’ll graduate and be arriving back at your home unit, ready to complete the journey you started so long before.

For some good footage and audio of F-16 B-Course flights, check out this graduation video below.  One of the better ones!  Credit to John “AWAL” Iselin for his video editing.  AWAL and I were flying in combat together over Afghanistan a year and a half after he made this video for B-Course graduation.  We employed quite a few weapons and killed a lot of bad guys in the mighty Viper.

 

Mission Qualification Training (MQT)

Except you’re not done yet.  Not quite. Though you’ll graduate B-course proficient in basic skill sets, your unit is still responsible for topping off your training before your commander can sign off that you are combat mission ready (CMR).  Fighter squadrons are responsible for devising and implementing their own local versions of MQT, so these programs can vary between Guard/Reserve F-16 squadrons depending on the primary mission and block or variant that the unit flies. 

Typically, MQT programs will focus on re-visiting basic skill sets like BFM and BSA, then introducing the new wingman to squadron specific mission sets like defensive counterair, more CAS, or advanced SAT.  Squadrons equipped with simulators will supplement flights with time those simulators, and you will likely spend some academic time with the squadron weapons officer or experienced IPs to make sure your knowledge is where it needs to be.  Your MQT program will culminate in another checkride, this one being your mission qualification checkride. It focuses on your ability to uphold your role and responsibilities as a wingman, to include weapon system knowledge and employment, threat knowledge, and handling emergency procedures in a combat environment.  It is paired with a simulator checkride like the IEPE, this one being the Mission Emergency Procedures Evaluation, or MEPE. Once you have passed your MEPE and mission checkride, you’ve made it. You are a bona fide combat mission ready F-16 wingman.  

Flight Lead and Instructor Upgrades

While you progress in your squadron as a wingman, you’ll be monitored by your weapons officer and other IPs for entry into the Flight Lead Upgrade, or FLUG.  Some squadrons have a 2-ship FLUG and 4-ship FLUG, but most simply run a 4-ship FLUG. This can happen at any point in your career, though typically a FLUG happens after around two years as a wingman.  FLUG programs vary from squadron to squadron, but all of them have the same objective: produce a flight lead capable of leading a flight of four F-16s in any combat situation around the world. FLUG syllabi will usually mirror MQT, except this time you are briefing, leading, and debriefing the formation instead of your IP briefing, leading, and debriefing you.  Success in the FLUG requires extensive preparation, study, and effort.

After some period of time as a flight lead, your squadron may assess you for entry into the IP Upgrade, or IPUG, to make you an instructor in the F-16.  Generally, your squadron weapons officer will be responsible for running the IPUG in your squadron, so you’ll spend the majority of your flights with him/her.  The IPUG syllabus will also mirror the MQT syllabus, except that the focus will be on your ability to instruct and teach an MQT student rather than simply lead the formation.  Your F-16 knowledge will have to be peerless, and you’ll be expected to answer the “why” behind the “what” regarding all aspects of F-16 employment, from aircraft systems to tactics to enemy threat systems.  Graduate the IPUG and you’ve become part of an elite group: F-16 instructors.  

Look for my article on USAF Weapons School to learn more about creating weapons officers and their role in the squadron. 

BogiDope, an F-16 executing a hard left turn.
The journey is long and lots of work…but worth it to have an office like this!

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