Each year, the 149th Fighter Wing, headquartered at Joint Base
San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, trains F-16 Fighting Falcon student
pilots for the Total Force – U.S. Air Force, Air National Guard and
U.S. Air Force Reserve. Their courses include: initial qualification
training, instructor pilot upgrade training and senior leader
This year, the Texas Air National
Guard unit, whose members are known as the Lone Star Gunfighters, is
overcoming unusual adversity to achieve their Air Force objectives.
The current challenges include a temporary relocation of
operations from San Antonio's Kelly Field to Luke Air Force Base,
near Phoenix, to numerous maintenance issues affecting their
Capt. Tom Mueller, an F-16 Fighting Falcon student pilot, visits
with Tech. Sgt. Manny Vasquez, an aircraft crew chief, at Luke Air
Force Base, Arizona, April 13, 2016. Mueller and Vasquez are
currently assigned to the Texas Air National Guard's 149th Fighter
Wing, headquartered at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, which
is currently operating at Luke while San Antonio's Kelly Field
undergoes runway repairs. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by 2nd Lt.
“Each year, in April, we come to Arizona to allow the
students to be able to participate in a large force
employment exercises,” said Lt. Col. Bryan Carlson, an
instructor pilot and commander of the 149th Maintenance
“It allows them to fly with other airplanes
from other services and to fly beyond just a four-ship, to
employ as an eight-ship and beyond, and to fly against
multiple targets,” Carlson said. “And it allows them to drop
heavy weights and live bombs.”
The trip to Arizona is
not new, but the length of the stay is, Carlson said.
Typically, the trip is a two-week temporary duty that
incorporates the ANG unit's annual training requirements,
but now they have been in-place for nearly two months.
The annual trip is normally dubbed Coronet Cactus, and
serves as a capstone, training event for the student pilots
before they graduate and head off to their active or reserve
component units. This year, the Gunfighters are calling the
trip Super Cactus, due to their extended visit to the Grand
The temporary relocation is a result of
ongoing repairs to Kelly Field, which are expected to be
complete in May.
As a result of the relocation, the
unit has had to adjust its training syllabus and integrate
themselves into a new environment.
“We've had to
figure out the nuances of operating at a location like
Luke,” said Lt. Col. Kristian Thiele, an instructor pilot
and the assistant director of operations for the wing's
182nd Fighter Squadron. “We are competing with not only six
other flying squadrons for airspace and range time, but also
the Marine customers at Yuma, as well as Davis-Monthan and
“At home, we are the only user,
typically, of our airspace, so we can drive our own
schedule,” Thiele said. “Here, we've been at the mercy of
their range airspace scheduling, so we've had some pretty
wild shifts in takeoff times and where our days are from
week to week. That's been a challenge.”
mission goes on and the pilot training remains underway.
However, a more serious threat to the unit's training
mission involves the structural integrity of some of their
“We're at a unique time, because our home
station planes are going through a repair process that we
haven't had to do before,” Carlson said. “We're operating
with significantly less airplanes right now and still trying
to be able to keep the student timeline relatively close.”
This is an issue for the Total Force, but mostly impacts
Air National Guard units, which operate aging Block-30
F-16s, Carlson said. All of the Gunfighters' two-seat
training model aircraft were grounded last fall.
“It's mainly a Guard problem,” Carlson said. “Right now,
it's only a D-Model, or two-seat, problem. But it affects
the longeron, which is a main frame of the plane. Last
November, we found a crack in a position of that longeron at
the aft end of the canopy. The repair process takes about 21
Gunfighter maintainers are working with an
aircraft depot team from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, to work
on the jets at Luke, Carlson said. After completing these
repairs, the aircraft should be able to fly another 1,000
hours before further repair; afterward, they will have to
undergo a yearlong repair process.
“We're in historic
times right now, we've never had to fly the airplanes that
are still flyable at the rate that we've had to fly them,”
Carlson said. “What ends up happening when you do that is:
you compress the required maintenance that has to happen on
To keep their training on pace, the
unit reached out to other units to borrow available F-16s.
“We borrowed some jets from other Air National Guard
units – from Vermont, Atlantic City and Alabama,” Thiele
said. “We've just accepted some (active duty jets) from Hill
(Air Force Base, Utah).”
Unlike an agreement between
active duty units, lending aircraft from the active
component to the Air National Guard requires coordination
between the Air Force major commands, the federal National
Guard Bureau and the Texas Air National Guard's leadership.
These borrowed aircraft are expected to allow the
Gunfighters to get caught up on student production and get
ahead going forward, Carlson said.
the new aircraft is not as simple as it might seem.
“The front-end of accepting airplanes is a lot of work,”
“One, we have to gain it on the
paperwork side, into the maintenance software system,”
Carlson said, “and that takes several days to do that per
airplane. Then, we physically go out and do inspections to
make sure that it's up to the standards.”
the F-16s from Hill are a more advanced block than the Texas
jets, Carlson said. This has required the aircraft
maintainers, the avionics specialists in particular, to
receive additional training to work on the Block 40 F-16s.
Even before receiving the aircraft, the Gunfighters have
to send pilots and maintainers to the lending unit to pick
up the aircraft for transport back to Luke.
This – in
conjunction with the temporary relocation from Kelly Field
to Luke – has created complexity for the Air National
Guardsmen's pay and benefits.
“I think anybody in
this unit would say this is the most complex TDY that
anybody has ever seen,” said Staff Sgt. John B. Solano, a
military pay technician with the 149th Comptroller Flight.
“Usually our mass TDYs are just two weeks,” Solano
said. “Its two weeks there, two weeks back. There's really
not that extensive time for issues to happen, and if it did
happen, it would get settled back home.”
active duty counterparts, the Gunfighters have to manage
through the complexity of a blended workforce of Active
Guard Reservists, who are most similar to active duty
airmen, dual-status, civilian technicians and traditional
drill status Guardsmen.
“There's a lot of ‘what ifs'
that we couldn't answer until it happened,” Solano said. “We
have individuals flying in and out of Luke to do other TDYs,
which are also effecting their current TDY. We're having to
make multiple (travel) amendments to accommodate, to book
plane tickets, rental cars, lodging at those duty locations,
and in return, to get them back here.”
where they're lodging – whether they're on or off-base –
depends on how much per diem they get. So there's also
adjustments based on their status while they're here,”
Even with these challenges, Carlson said
his maintainers are excited to accept the new aircraft.
“We pride ourselves on the cleanliness of our airplanes
and the maintenance practices that we do,” Carlson said. “We
are very fortunate in the Guard, we have continuity on
airplanes. You have guys that have crewed the same airplane
for 20 years. They know these airplanes, in-and-out.”
“There's just a level of pride there that's difficult to
replicate,” Carlson said. “They'll adopt these aircraft as
if they were their own.”
Being away from home longer
than expected can be a challenge, but the Gunfighter airmen
have embraced the opportunities the trip presents.
think morale is really high,” Carlson said. “We're able to
focus on the mission. Another byproduct of that is, we've
been able to get closer as a unit.”
“We spend a lot
more time together, doing things together in the evenings
and on the weekends, those are things we're not able to do
at home,” Carlson said. “Even though they miss being home
for these months, I think that they cherish the time to
build those bonds and to focus on the mission.”
addition to the personal connections that are enhanced,
there are professional benefits for the Gunfighters'
operation at Luke.
“We're out of our comfort-zone,”
Thiele said. “But I think that helps us, as pilots, not
flying in our backyard all of the time. Not only for the
student perspective, but also the instructors.”
Carlson said much the same from the maintenance standpoint.
“This gives us a great chance to get out of the comfort
in our normal environment at home and act like we're
deployed,” Carlson said. “It also allows the maintenance
personnel to pack up and operate out of a different
The current student pilots are on track to
graduate from their initial qualification course in June.
Afterward, they are slated to go to units within the
stateside Air Combat Command, U.S. Air Forces in Europe or
Pacific Air Forces major commands.
“We continue to
accomplish the 149th Fighter Wing's federal mission,” Thiele
said. “We've been able to – even with the aircraft issues
we've had – continue the training role and get product out
to the combat Air Force.”
By U.S. Air National 2nd Lt. Phil Fountain
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