SD Guard wing completes conversion to new jetsNew planes are a strategic move to stay in the game as US Department of Defense evaluates future Air Force.
SIOUX FALLS (AP) — Twenty-two dusty gray F-16s bearing the distinctive Lobo tail art of the 114th Fighter Wing are the equivalent of a poker raise.
They allow the South Dakota Air National Guard to stay in the game as the Department of Defense determines what the U.S. Air Force becomes in the future. The end game for all Air National Guard units is still to have a flying mission when the Air Force eventually transitions to its new F-35 joint strike fighter sometime in the 21st century.
"The Air Force, in the next couple of years, is supposed to put out the F-35 bed down plan for all Guard and Reserve units. We want to see that as well as everybody else," said Col. Russ Walz, the 114th's commander.
In 1991, the 114th began flying F-16s that had been built several years earlier, designated as Block 30s. In 2010, those planes were retired, and the 114th acquired its current fleet of Block 40 F-16s from Hill Air Force Base in Utah. The 114th on Friday said it had completed the conversion, accomplishing all the training requirements in the new jets.
The Block 40 jets are three to five years newer than the Block 30s. They have a strengthened and lengthened undercarriage, and even though they are heavier than the Block 30s, because the intake on their engines is wider than the intake on a Block 30 F-16, the Block 40 planes can generate greater thrust.
"It's always about thrust to weight," Walz said.
More important, the Block 40 and even newer Block 50 F-16s are the planes the Air Force will use as a bridge to the F-35. To even be considered for the new fighter, a Guard unit has to be flying at least Block 40 planes. Even this is no guarantee a unit's long-term fighter mission is assured, Walz said.
"The Air Force is going to take a certain number of 40s and 50s and upgrade them, structurally and with software and hardware. Our Block 40s are in the group. But there are more Block 40s than there are going to be upgrades," he said.
The 114th this week has been putting its new F-16s through their paces in an extensive training exercise for the first time since acquiring them two years ago. On the flight line at Joe Foss Field, the planes that will be flying Saturday and Sunday bristle ominously with ordnance. The 114th's executive officer, Lt. Col. Reid Christopherson, points out sharp-tipped Sidewinder and Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air missiles.
Belts of 20 mm shells have been cranked into fuselages for the M61 Vulcan cannons, electrically fired six-barreled Gatling guns.
Christopherson also points to the bottom of the fuselage, where there are attached pods containing targeting equipment and countermeasures to jam radar signals of enemy missiles trying to home in on the plane.
Portly wing tanks carrying fuel to extend the plane's range resemble the heavy bombs dropped from the belly of a World War II B-17.
Real bombs, in fact, are going a different direction, according to Walz. Small diameter bombs are among upgrades the 114th hopes to get in the next few years, he said.
About two-thirds of the 114th pilots already have been checked out on an example of that technology, the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System, Walz said. It's an upgrade limited to Block 40 and newer F-16s.
It allows a pilot to direct weapons against enemy fighters by pointing his or her head at a target even while performing extreme aircraft maneuvers. In air-to-ground missions, the cueing system meshes with other sensing technology and smart weapons to precisely attack surface targets.
Because the system has a magnetic tracker determining where the pilot's head is pointed and a miniature display system that projects information on a pilot's visor, a pilot has constant information about location, targets and potential threats from all directions no matter where the pilot is looking.
Such situational awareness technology is a major thrust of the upgrades the Air Force plans for the F-16, Walz said. A center pedestal computer screen also is in the pipeline. It will display flight information a pilot can customize.
"The young pilots live for this technology," Walz said with a grin. "It's just us old guys who struggle with it."