Ukrainians to train on F-16 jet fighters in Tucson

Ukrainian military pilots are expected to begin training to fly F-16 fighter jets in Tucson later this year, as the United States continues to back that country in the face of Russian’s invasion.

While the number of Ukrainian pilots is unknown, they are expected to arrive sometime in October, according to Robert Medler, chair of the Southern Arizona Defense Alliance.

“I think the Tucson community should be excited that we are going to play host to some members of the Ukrainian Air Force,” he said.

The Ukrainian pilots, along with ground crews, will train with the Air National Guard’s 162nd Wing at Morris Air National Guard Base, located at Tucson International Airport.

The 162nd Wing specializes in training pilots from around the world, according to Medler. Over the last three decades, the unit has trained pilots from more than two dozen countries, including Iraq, Singapore, Bahrain, Portugal, Thailand and Japan. While many NATO countries are phasing out the F-16 in favor of the F-35, pilots from Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy have trained on F-16s in Tucson as well.

Ukrainian pilots visited Arizona earlier this year so Air Force personnel could assess their skills on F-16 flight simulators.

The Ukrainians coming to Tucson for flight training will first attend language courses at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, according to an Aug. 24 Pentagon press release.

While the United States has not offered F-16s to Ukraine, the Netherlands and Denmark have said they will provide the fighter jets from their fleets to the country as it fights to repel a Russian invasion, according to the Defense Department.

“The training provided by the United States will complement the F-16 pilot and maintenance training that’s already underway in Europe and further deepens our support of the F-16 training coalition led by Denmark and the Netherlands,” Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a prepared statement. “Moving forward we will remain in close consultation with the Danes, the Dutch and other allies to ensure U.S. training complements the broader coalition training efforts.”

The training could last five to eight months, depending on the pilots’ skills, according to Ryder.

U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, a former Navy combat pilot, said he was “proud of the continued role that Arizona will play in supporting Ukraine’s fight for freedom.”

The Tucson base’s proximity to the live-fire Goldwater range — which has nearly 2 million acres of open skies above rugged terrain in western Arizona — means its a frequent stop for foreign pilots training on U.S. aircraft. Vast stretches of the rest of the state are “military operations areas,” set up to segregate training from civilian flights, where Air Force and other military planes operating below 18,000 feet are
allowed to fly at night without lights.

“There is no better place in the world to get Ukrainian pilots and maintainers trained up and into the fight with the F-16 than Morris Air National Guard Base in Tucson,” Kelly said in a press release. “The F-16 will bring significant new capabilities to the Ukrainian Air Force, and I appreciate the administration’s assessment and planning that has gone into standing up these training programs with our allies while also working to supply Ukraine with the weapons and ammunition they need now.”

Kelly (D-Arizona) has been urging the Biden administration to transfer F-16 fighters to Ukraine, including being part of a March 14 letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin co-signed by Tommy Tuberville (R-Alabama), Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico), Ted Budd (R-North Carolina), Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), and Jacky Rosen (D-Nevada).

The lawmakers said the conflict had reached a “critical juncture.”

“After speaking with U.S., Ukrainian, and foreign leaders working to support Ukraine at the Munich Security Conference last month, we believe the U.S. needs to take a hard look at providing F-16 aircraft to Ukraine,” they wrote. “This would be a significant capability that could prove to be a game changer on the battlefield.”

There have been two fatal crashes among the foreign pilots training out of the Air Guard base at TIA in recent years.

An Iraqi F-16 pilot was killed in a 2017 crash about 20 miles northwest of Safford in September 2017, and in June 2015, an Iraqi pilot was killed when his F-16 crashed near Douglas on a 162nd training mission.

In November 2015, an F-16 from Holloman Air Force Base, near
Alamogordo, crashed in New Mexico, but the pilot ejected safely in that
incident. That F-16 belonged to a unit detached from Luke AFB in
Glendale, Ariz.

In January 2016, a Taiwanese pilot was killed when an F-16 fighter jet based at Luke crashed near Bagdad, Ariz., west of Prescott. 

In February 2017, one person was killed and another hurt during a U.S. Air Force live-fire training accident involving F-16 fighter planes in New Mexico, based out of Luke.

In 2019, an A-10 pilot accidentally launched a white phosphorous rocket
during a training exercise about 60 miles from Tucson. The rocket hit a
desert wash in the Jackal MAO, which sits between the Outlaw and
Morenci MOAs.