In 2016, while deployed to Afghanistan, Air Force Maj. Geffrey Gebhardt received an alert at his base that U.S. forces were in trouble. It is a story he reluctantly explains because he’s not a fan of telling “war stories.”
“Weather was bad. Nobody was flying and we got a call that 200 miles away there was a base under attack,” Gebhardt said.
Within minutes he was airborne, flying the highly maneuverable F-16 Fighting Falcon, a U.S. Air Force workhorse aircraft that has proven itself in combat. The weather, while bad, was no match for the F-16’s technology, which can locate targets in inclement weather during non-visual bombing conditions.
As Gebhardt flew to the fight, he communicated with forces on the ground. In the background, he could hear the gunfire, shouting and chaos of the battle below him. Then Gebhardt inserted his aircraft in the airspace over the battlefield.
“As soon as we got on station, the enemy shooting stopped,” Gebhardt said. “Our presence overhead made the enemy stop attacking our guys on the ground and that’s what it’s all about -- providing the support to those guys on the ground who are dodging bullets and need to stay safe. Sometimes that means dropping weapons, but other times it simply means being there ready to help.”
It is this type of operational experience that makes the Airmen of the 149th Fighter Wing a crucial part of the U.S. Air Force’s F-16 pilot training program. Warfighters, in short, can better teach warfighting.
The 149th FW maintains a mobility commitment in many support areas including security forces, medical, civil engineering, services, transportation and military personnel. Instructor pilots like Gebhardt, who has amassed 1,500 hours in the cockpit, can deploy with other units to support combat operations.
“We just had some people get back who deployed with other units,” Gebhardt said. “It keeps us fresh in the combat world of the F-16,” he said. “It allows us to identify what skills we need to teach students.”
The 149th FW, known as the Lone Star Gunfighters, is an F-16 training unit that is a part of the Texas Air National Guard and the Texas Military Department. Based out of Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, the cornerstone of the 149th FW's flying mission is the 182nd Fighter Squadron, whose role is to take pilots, either experienced aircrew or recent graduates from U.S. Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training, or UPT, and qualify them to fly the F-16. The unit trains F-16 pilots for the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard.
“We are grateful to have a cadre of instructor pilots whose average time in the jet is somewhere around 1,500 hours,” U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Corey Hermesch said.
As a member of the unit for the past ten years, and an F-16 pilot with 2,600 hours, Hermesch speaks with a unique perspective.
“The experience in this group of instructor pilots is matched nowhere else in the USAF F-16 fleet,” he added.
Pilots of the 149th FW have a long lineage of combat experience dating back to World War II. The unit, then known as the 396th Fighter Squadron, distinguished itself in the air offensive in Europe, to include operations in Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace and throughout Central Europe.
The Texas Air National Guard unit was later called up for the Korean War and it quickly became a widely lauded Air National Guard unit by being the first Air National Guard unit to enter combat, the first Air National Guard unit to shoot down a MiG-15, and the first to successfully demonstrate the applicability of aerial refueling during combat.
Aside from its vital role of being one of three F-16 training units in the U.S. Air Force, the 149th FW is home to the 149th Maintenance Group, 149th Operations Group, 149th Mission Support Group and the 149th Medical Group. In addition, the 149th FW has five geographically separated units: Texas Air National Guard Headquarters, 203rd Security Forces Squadron, 204th Security Forces Squadron, 209th Weather Flight, and 273rd Cyber Operations Squadron.
The 149th FW was officially formed on Oct. 1, 1995, and it became an F-16 training unit in October 1999. The first class of active duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve pilots began training in May 2000.
“About 80 percent of them are from active duty,” Gebhardt said about the student populace.
He has trained more than 100 pilots since becoming an instructor pilot in 2009, a role he’s performed on active duty and in the Air National Guard.
In addition to training pilots fresh out of UPT, the 149th FW also trains senior officers on the F-16 who might be assuming command of an F-16 unit and who are not qualified on the aircraft. However, the rigorous nine-month training program is mostly for brand new pilots, but the 149th also trains instructor pilot upgrade students, requalification students, and they have also trained students from the Pilot Training Next program which leverages virtual and augmented reality in an effort to streamline the Air Force’s effort to get qualified pilots in the air. Roughly 14 students fill each class.
The training starts with about a month’s worth of classroom time and F-16 simulator flying, and then pilots take to the skies.
Approximately 50 trainees attend F-16 training at the 149th FW each year, Hermesch said, and the 149th FW is one of two Air National Guard units that train pilots on the F-16. There is also an active duty Air Force unit with the same mission.
Chief Master Sgt. John Mead, 149th’s Maintenance Operations Flight superintendent, stated that planning is vital to the unit’s mission of training warfighters.
“We make sure we’re coordinating the maintenance and the flying plan and that they mesh seamlessly so we can have a good game plan each week and we can properly train our pilots and fly our missions,” Mead said.
Maintenance personnel ensure every component of the aircraft functions as expected. It enables the student pilots to experience, in a training environment, the maximum capabilities of the F-16.
“Whenever they return to their units … they’re ready to step into their warfighting missions and go do the job,” Mead said.
In the military, lessons learned in combat sharpen the skills of future warfighters when they are applied in training by instructors. Pilots like Gebhardt are a critical source of knowledge. Their experience enables them to better prepare pilots for the future fight.
“Combat experience for our IPs [instructor pilots] is important because it keeps our knowledge relevant for the fight that’s happening now,” Gebhardt said. “Within a year of graduating from our course some of these students will be flying missions in a combat theater and we need to be able to tell our students what they can expect the first time they fly an F-16 over hostile territory.”
The U.S. Air Force’s domestic support missions also provide pilots like Gebhardt unique events his fellow U.S. military aviators in other branches might not get.
In 2008, while on active duty, Gebhardt was on alert status when a claxon sounded giving him several minutes to be airborne. It was Christmas Eve and he was flying toward Camp David to provide air cover protection for the president of the United States.
“The reason I tend to remember it is because I think it perfectly highlights what we do,” Gebhardt said. “I sacrificed my Christmas by sitting on base 24 hours a day ready to get airborne all so the rest of the country could enjoy their Christmas holiday,” he added.
Hermesch understands firsthand of the sacrifices made by Airmen around the world as they train for war. Sometimes aircrew training can be more perilous than combat missions. It is all part of the mantra, train as you fight; fight as you train.
Hermesch was forced to divert his F-16 to Keflavik, Iceland once while on a mission.
“We were 300 miles south of the island in the middle of the Atlantic, and all of a sudden, my single engine can’t produce enough thrust to keep me caught up with the tanker,” Hermesch said. “It had enough thrust to stay airborne, but not enough to refuel. We diverted to Keflavik, and landed without incident, after saying a few prayers on the way in,” he said.
After landing, Hermesch had time to reflect about what could have happened had his diversion been unsuccessful. It is one of his more memorable anecdotes as a pilot.
“You can be exceptionally proud of the men and women who call themselves Gunfighters,” Hermesch said. “They focus on training, on developing people, accomplishing the mission, taking care of families, and serving their community like no other unit I’ve been a part of,” he said.