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International Pilots Train to Fly U.S. Fighter Plane

The U.S. military's F-16 Fighting Falcon is one of the most popular fighter jets ever. About 4,500 have been sold all over the world. But pilots must be trained by Americans -- and that means traveling far from home and learning an entirely different way to fly. VOA's Priscilla Huff has the story from the desert of the American Southwest.

Pilots who want to fly the F-16 fighter jet must come here, to the desert near Tucson, Arizona. One of the instructors is Lieutenant Colonel Mike High. "Our mission is to train students from all over the world -- whoever flies F-16s and whoever wants the training -- to train them to fly the F-16."

The 162nd Fighter Wing of the International Guard hosts the U.S. military's program to train pilots from allied nations. But before they arrive, they have to master one skill -- speaking English. This is critical, says squadron commander Lieutenant Colonel Will Johnson.

"It's the language. Every country comes in and they understand English but sometimes, they don't understand our gang signs or our slang, so that is confusing. But once they figure us out and we figure them out, it's no problem."

It is about more than just the language. The F-16 training program also involves learning the American approach to flying the $30 million aircraft. Lessons start with a lot of classroom time.

The American training emphasizes more independent thinking during a mission. Pilot Ross Stepaniuk of the Polish Air Force must learn a different leadership style. "Most of us need to get accustomed to the procedures here. The way of doing things that we are used to in our Air Force, they are totally different here. It is a huge transition for pilots from our system of flying to where, first of all, there is a lot of traffic in the air, second, you fly a lot, and finally, you have to meet very, very high expectations."

It will take Stepaniuk and the rest of the Polish Air Force several years to completely make the transition from the Russian MiG to the F-16. Lieutenant Colonel Mike High explains, "I would say there is a very big difference between what he's been doing, and what he's learning how to do now. Which means it may be more of a challenge than it may appear to the casual observer. The F-16 is much, much more advanced than the MiG; much more advanced – it’s 21st century technology, whereas the MiG was 1950s technology. Really, I mean, it has been upgraded, but it is a very, very old aircraft."

The F-16 was first built in 1976. The planes are now assembled under a consortium deal managed by NATO. Parts come from several nations. Once a purchase contract is signed with the U.S. military, the preparation process begins, as ground crews and officers learn how to care for the jets.

And, of course, the pilots need to learn how to fly the planes, which can reach speeds of Mach 2: 2400 kilometers per hour.

Ross Stepaniuk is one of the first seven Polish pilots to graduate from the program after nearly two years of hard work.

But his training is not complete. Stepaniuk must remain in Tucson to earn his wings as an instructor pilot for the Polish Air Force.

"It's a wonderful aircraft. It feels very good, maybe it's too good,” he says. “But, it's still difficult because the more experience you have, the higher the expectations go. You have to know more and more about this plane we all fly, so you have to have tremendous experience in so many areas."

Pilots from Singapore, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates also are being trained in Tucson. And the next F-16 training program is in the works for Pakistan.

Some footage courtesy Lockheed-Martin