By David Pittman –
Air National Guard Site Trains the World
When the Arizona Air National Guard began operations at the edge of Tucson International Airport in 1956, the 162nd Wing consisted only of an old adobe farmhouse and a small dirt-floor hangar with just enough space for three Korean War-era aircraft.
Now celebrating its 60th anniversary, the 162nd Wing is one of the largest Air National Guard wing in the nation with more than 1,700 people and 80 F-16 supersonic fighter aircraft.
The Air National Guard’s premier F-16 fighter pilot training unit is at the 162nd. In addition to training U.S. fighter pilots over the last 47 years, the 162nd Wing has provided F-16 training to pilots from 28 allied countries since 1989. In doing so the 162nd has graduated more than 7,000 fighter pilots and developed strong international relationships based on performance, friendship and trust.
“The 162nd is known all over the world because we engage with air forces in many countries,” said Brig. Gen. Howard “Phil” Purcell, wing commander of the 162nd. “Building partnerships with other nations is a Department of Defense strategy and the 162nd plays an integral part in that.”
Ideal flying space for training
The international fighter training provided by the 162nd is sought after because the Wing has a reputation of excellence and success in pilot training and Southern Arizona is an ideal place to fly aircraft.
“You can’t beat the flying weather or the range space we have here in Southern Arizona,” Purcell said. “We get somewhere around 345 days of sunshine a year in Tucson and the range space we sit right in the middle of is among the best anywhere.”
Pilots from the Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, Norway and Iraq are currently being trained at the 162nd Wing. In fact, fighter training is so popular among allied nations that the program frequently is fully booked and countries must be placed on a waiting list to get in.
“It is a booming business for us,” Purcell said.
The 162nd Wing is the 40th largest employer in Southern Arizona. Data from 2008 estimated an annual economic impact of $280 million.
“All the airmen of the 162nd Wing have a positive impact on Tucson and Southern Arizona. They are all part of this community. They buy houses, rent apartments, buy automobiles, gas, groceries and everything else,” said Maj. Gen. Edward Maxwell, commander of the Arizona Air National Guard. “The training mission also has a great benefit on the local economy because it brings in international dollars to Tucson from people training here from all over the world.”
But training U.S. and foreign pilots is only one of four primary missions performed by the 162nd Wing. It also operates:
• A Homeland Defense detachment at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base that includes fully loaded F-16s and the pilots to fly them who are ready to react to any threat or emergency – be it a military attack, an act of terrorism or a lost airliner – at a moment’s notice 24/7. “We are the alert force for the U.S. military for the Southwestern region,” said Purcell.
• The Total Force Training Center Tucson, another detachment operated from D-M, that provides support for visiting flying units from around the world looking to train in the optimal weather conditions and ample ranges of Southern Arizona.
• The 214th Reconnaissance Group, detachments at D-M and the U.S. Army’s Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista. The detachment at D-M currently flies the MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (or drone) in daily combat missions in the Middle East via satellite, providing troops on the ground with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The detachment at Fort Huachuca trains launch and recovery teams that work on the ground to get drone aircraft up and down successfully.
Construction of the Aerospace Parkway by Pima County was done to replace Hughes Access Road and create a larger buffer area surrounding Raytheon Missile Systems. It also promises to make room for construction of another runway at TIA and enable needed expansion at the 162nd Wing.
Although the F-16 eventually will be replaced by the F-35, a fifth-generation stealth fighter that is the most heavily software-driven jet in history, both Maxwell and Purcell expressed confidence about the future of the 162nd Wing.
“The F-16 training mission truly has a long viability,” Maxwell said. “F-16s are still being produced, they are still being sold to our international partners, we’ve been the international hub for F-16 training since 1991 and the F-16 requirements for the Air Force are continuing to grow. The F-16 training mission is very secure for at least a decade out. And there is the potential for the 162nd Wing to move into F-35 training in the future.”
Site upgrades needed
Purcell said he sees “a time frame in the future” when both F-16s and F-35s will be flown at the 162nd. However, Maxwell and Purcell said upgrades will be required at the Air Guard’s facility at TIA to guarantee its long-term future.
“We love Tucson International Airport and we love being stationed here,” Purcell said. “But the facility did start here in the ’50s. In some respects it’s like having an old car. You love that old car, but keeping it in good shape requires upkeep.
“So, there are things we need, not only to continue our mission effectively but also to plan for the future because when the F-35 comes, many infrastructure changes will be necessary. The more prepared we are, the easier it will be to absorb that capability.”
Maxwell said the most pressing upgrade needed is the relocation of the facility’s main entry gate just off Valencia Road, which commanders of the 162nd have been trying to accomplish for about a decade.
“Back when that gate was designed there was little concern regarding criminal or terrorist threats,” Maxwell said. “The gate is very small with no turnaround facility, which means anyone who turns on the road leading to the gate, even those not permitted to enter, must be allowed on the base to turn around. Another key concern is the gate is not compliant with numerous anti-terror requirements that have been developed since 9/11 and we are currently operating on waivers.
“The ideal for us is for the entry gate to be off of Park Avenue. That would allow us to build an access road to the gate and develop an entry similar to the two primary gates into Davis-Monthan off Craycroft and Swan roads.”
Maxwell said various government entities – including the military, the airport and the FAA – have been negotiating the issue on and off for a decade, to no avail. “There were times when we believed an agreement was close, but something always happened” that one party or another couldn’t abide, he said. “It isn’t the 162nd that must enter the agreement with the airport on this; it’s the Air Force and the National Guard.
“Replacement of the gate is not only a current need, it is a current requirement because it does not meet minimum anti-terrorism and force requirements,” Maxwell said. “We believe it (a new relocated gate) is a requirement for current missions and an absolute requirement for future missions.”