F-16 Turns 50 Special: What It Takes To Become A Viper Pilot

F-16 pilot
U.S. Air Force Maj. Daniel Thompson, 8th Fighter Squadron instructor pilot, conducts an F-16 Viper training sortie over White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, Aug. 22, 2023. The 54th Fighter Group is one of the premier fighter pilot training groups, training over 50 percent of the Air Force’s Viper pilots. The extensive training takes students fresh from Undergraduate Pilot Training and molds them into highly skilled, combat-ready aviators prepared to support combatant command priorities in any potential future conflicts. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Roidan Carlson)

Before flying the Viper operationally, pilots have to get through the nine-month B-Course which provides them with the Initial Qualification Training on the F-16.

During its 50 years, the F-16 has become one of the most recognizable fighter jets in service, also thanks to the fact that it is currently the most operated fighter jet around the world and the backbone of the U.S. Air Force. Multiple books, films and videogames feature the Viper, but have you ever wondered what it takes to fly the real one?

The training of F-16 pilots has been a much-discussed topic since the announcement of the donation of F-16s to Ukraine, however there are some misconceptions about it. The F-16 has been designed to be easy to fly and indeed its pilots confirm this, but it is not as easy as turning the key and stomping the feet on the throttle in a car.

In this article we will talk about how the U.S. Air Force trains F-16 pilots, as the service trains not only its pilots, but also the ones of many international operators. The latter train in Tucson with the 162nd FW of the Arizona ANG, while the former train with the 56th FW at Luke AFB, Arizona, and the 49th FW at Holloman AFB, New Mexico.

Holloman AFB is now the main training base for F-16 pilots in the USA as the Formal Training Units were moved there to make space for the F-35 training at Luke AFB, where only the 309th Fighter Squadron continues to train Viper pilots. Holloman AFB trains an average of 180 students per year, averaging more than 10,800 sorties and 14,600 hours per fiscal year with the 311th Fighter Squadron, 314th Fighter Squadron and 8th Fighter Squadron.

Usually, the F-16 Basic Course takes about nine months to graduate pilots that will then go on to operational units for their combat readiness training. According to the US Air Force, during the 37-week long B-Course, students log on average 70 hours of flying time over 59 sorties in addition to roughly 245-hours of academic training and 69-hours of flight simulator training.

Pilots that attend the B-Course usually come straight from Undergraduate Pilot Training and Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals, which provide a strong foundation to start building the new capabilities with the F-16. Sometimes, pilots might be transferring from another aircraft and the training duration might be shorter because they already have operational experience and only need to “translate” that experience on the new aircraft.

The B-Course begins with four weeks of academics to teach pilots about the F-16’s systems and emergency procedures, followed by training events on the flight simulator and egress simulator that prepare the student for the first flight. With the F-16 being a single seat aircraft, students are quickly put through their paces and, after four flights on the twin seat F-16D, they fly their first solo mission on the F-16C.

The student continues building its proficiency and prepares for the check ride which provides the qualification to fly the Viper in all weather conditions, while also continuing academics and simulator sessions throughout the course. The new F-16 pilots then continue with the air-to-air phase of the course, with Basic Fighter Maneuvers, Advanced Fighter Maneuvers and Tactical Intercepts, while also integrating air-to-air refueling and night flying.

Once this phase is completed, students move to the air-to-ground phase, beginning with low altitude flight,  Basic Surface Attack mission profiles with unguided weapons and then moving to guided weapons employment. Towards the end of the course, students are put to the test with more complex Offensive Counter Air, Close Air Support and COMposite Air Operation.

Pilots who successfully complete the B-Course are wingmen able to proficiently operate either as a single-ship or in a two- or four-ship formation, employing the 20 mm cannon, AIM-9 and AIM-120 air-to-air missiles, Paveway Laser-Guided Bombs, JDAM Inertially-Aided Munitions with the help of the JHMCS Helmet-Mounted Display, Night Vision Googles and targeting pod.

Training is not over yet, as to become fully fledged Viper pilots, graduates continue to train in their new units to achieve the combat readiness, expanding their mission sets (such as the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses), introducing new weapons (such as the AGM-65 Maverick, GBU-39 SDB or the AGM-158 JASSM), new qualifications (such as the flight lead).

While at the operational squadron, pilots will fly even more challenging scenarios, culminating with the premier air combat exercise, the Red Flag. The exercise, held multiple times per year at Nellis AFB, Nevada, and at Eielson AFB and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (Red Flag Alaska), is a two-week long exercise which sees aircrews subjected to every conceivable combat threat in multiple realistic scenarios.

Red Flag was created to provide aircrews with ten realistically simulated combat missions in a safe training environment, as Air Force analysts in the 1960s showed that a pilot’s chances of survival in combat dramatically increased after the completion of ten combat missions. To do that, Red Flag recreates Large Force Employment scenarios where Red Forces are equipped with 4th and 5th gen aircraft providing realistic air threats through the emulation of opposition tactics.

Red Forces also have radar and GPS jamming equipment, electronic ground defenses and communications, a realistic enemy Integrated Air Defense System with range threat emitters simulating anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missile launches. The result is a highly realistic hostile, non-cooperative training environment which reproduces the scenarios where pilots could find themselves in a future high-intensity symmetrical conflict against peer or near-peer adversaries.

About Stefano D'Urso
Stefano D'Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he's also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.