Each working day from 07.00 AM the skies over Luke Air Force Base (AFB), Arizona fill with jet noise as the first aircraft take off for their practise flights. Luke is home to the 56th Fighter Wing with nine fighter squadrons and the training center for the US Air Force (USAF) for F-35 and F-16 pilots. Since 2018 the F-35 Training Detachment of the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) has been active as part of the 308th Fighter Squadron (FS) “Emerald Knights”. Ludo Mennes and Frank Visser spoke with the commander of the Dutch detachment and Senior National Representative (SNR) within the 308th FS, Lt Col “Niki” Luijsterburg.
Training in the USA
Until 2022 the RNLAF trained their jet pilots at two different locations in the USA. The F-16 pilots, both experienced and new pilots coming from the Euro-NATO Joined Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT) at Sheppard AFB, Texas, were trained at the 148th FS, part of the 162nd Wing at Morris Air National Guard Base, Tucson. On 29th July 2022 the three students from the last F-16 class received their wings marking the end of the Dutch training activities at Tucson after 32 years. The RNLAF currently has only one active duty squadron of F-16s left and will seize flying the aircraft by the end of 2024. Lt Col Luijsterburg was commander since 2016 of the Dutch detachment with the 148th FS and was appointed as new commander of the F-35 detachment after the seizure of the Dutch activities at Tucson.
The RNLAF F-35 Training Detachment (Nederlands Opleidingsdetachement F-35, NODF-35) has been operating since 2018 within the 308th FS. The squadron itself was officially re-activated as a
F-35A unit in November 2018. Four Dutch frontrunners (two pilots, a logistics and maintenance specialist) started in the summer of 2018 to build up the Dutch detachment. The first Dutch jet (F-003) arrived on 4th February 2019, with the rest of the aircraft (F-004 to F-007) being delivered between 7th February and 19th March of the same year. The first two F-35s (F-001 and F-002) were already delivered in 2013 and were used by the 323 Test and Evaluation squadron (TES) for the Operational Test and Evaluation phase, first operating from Eglin AFB, Florida and from 2015 on from Edwards AFB, California. Both jets, together with the F-008 came to Luke AFB in 2020. Since, the Dutch detachment has been fully up and running. Lt Col Luijsterburg explains: “We are currently operating with a Dutch detachment of ten Instructor Pilots (IP) and a small support team of four. Two officers acting as (deputy) Partner Maintenance Liaison (PML) officer, one adjutant for configuration management and one adjutant for personnel and organisational support. We are fully embedded within the 308th FS under the command of AETC, USAF. From the start we focused mainly on the flight training of experienced F-16 pilots converting to the F-35. Since 2020 we also have started training the first “kids”, who received their initial jet training at Sheppard AFB, Texas, flying the T-38C.”
Of the ten IPs normally three are Weapons School Instructors and they do a tour of four to five years in Arizona.
From 2024 the Dutch detachment will have 8,5 IPs, as one of the current instructors, similar to the US counterparts, has become a reserve pilot, part-time flying for the unit besides a career at American Airlines. Lt Col Luijsterburg continues: “The situation with our reservist IP “Borat” is unique within the RNLAF. I am very pleased with the results, as we prove here that it is workable and he has a unique set of skills we need very hard for the team. So far, our Dutch Commander of the Air Combat Command (ACC) has only approved reserve pilots for the training units and not for active duty bases. The situation will be evaluated in the coming months, I will for sure advise positively for continuation of our present model!”
The 308th FS is a composed squadron under command of a USAF Lieutenant Colonel and responsible for the training of Dutch, Danish and American pilots. The sister squadron, 62nd FS “Spikes”, has a similar structure with detachments of the Norwegian and Italian Air Force. The 62nd FS was also responsible for the support of the 308th FS when it was re-activated and starting up again. When the unit reached a mature size the 308th transferred to its new squadron building in June 2019.
The Danish detachment arrived in the summer of 2020 and received their aircraft from the beginning of 2021, exactly two years after the RNLAF. The Danish Air Force has contributed six F-35s so far and a seventh airframe will be added to the inventory. The RNLAF has contributed eight F-35s, the USAF around 18 F-35s, as the numbers differ over time. For example currently the sister unit, 310thFS, is in the middle of a transition from the F-16C/D to the F-35A and more aircraft are added to the inventory of the 308th FS for training purposes. Once operational the 310th FS will receive the extra jets back from the 308th. One of the interesting features is that the IPs of the different nations use all aircraft from the pool, regardless of their national markings. The aircraft are legally owned by the different countries, the operational ownership lies with the 308thFS squadron commander.
The differences between the aircraft are mainly the delivery dates and number of flight hours, all aircraft are up to the P07 standard and interchangeable. However, the maintenance of the jets is different as the USAF has their own military crews, where the Royal Danish Air Force and RNLAF use the maintenance crews of Lockheed Martin, clearly visible wearing their blue outfits. The highly experienced contractors, 60 in total for the RNLAF jets, work in teams of three on their “own” aircraft and operate mainly as allrounders instead of as specialists.
All training programs are recorded in the Combined Wingman Syllabus (CWS), written by the AETC and equal to pilots of all nations. All student courses have their own specifically defined programs. Lt. Col Luijsterburg: “We run many different courses here depending on the experience of the students. Our most important product is the B-course for the students coming directly from the ENJJPT at Sheppard AFB, this course is the longest in duration and takes nine months to make the pilots mission ready. Besides, we also offer Transition Courses (TX) for the more experienced pilots, depending on their level of experience such as the TX-2 and Short TX-course.”The Short TX-course is for pilots, who will be qualified to fly the F-35 but will tactically not or be limited deployable. Usually, pilots will only make a couple of flights.
The most frequently run course is the TX-2 course, which is offered to converting F-16 pilots with a minimum of 500 flight hours and takes about 4.5 months. The course starts with a six weeks long theoretical training, combined with 14 simulator flights training the basics and emergency procedures. After the six weeks the student pilots make their first flight, where the IP chases the student to observe and coach if necessary. Normally each flight is preceded by a sim flight. In the first four flights the focus is on starts, landings and instrument flying. The tactical flying part is divided into the categories Air-to-Air, Air-to-Ground and Offensive Counter Air. During the Air-to-Air phase students learn to fly Basic Fighter Manoeuvres, Air Combat Manoeuvring and Tactical Intercepts. For the Air-to-Ground phase the focus is in the first place put on the use of weapons such as the cannon and the dropping of laser guided and GPS guided bombs. These missions are followed by Close Air Support and Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD/DEAD).
A lot of focus during the training is put on the SEAD role of the F-35. Lt Col Luijsterburg: “The role of the F-35 in general is SEAD. We can do a lot of things but ultimately, we are very well equipped in hunting down SAM-systems and Integrated Air Defense (IAD) systems. The F-35A is SEAD, our primary job is to detect SAMs, supress SAMs and eventually kill SAMs. The aircraft can basically use any weapon it can carry in- and outside to fulfil this DEAD mission with.”The last part of the program is night flying and the Offensive Counter Air, where the student’s fly missions with air- and ground threats and dynamic targeting to combine all their acquired knowledge.
After finishing their specific TX-Course future IPs will continue for another three to four months of intensive training if they’re experienced IPs. If they don’t have previous instructor experience the course to become an IP is even longer and will last six months. The focus is mainly on flying, both in the sim and the F-35, and less on theory. The IPs learn during their training how to teach and instruct students on the same tactical missions as the TX-courses. The 308th trains all available courses at the same time, which is exactly why it is difficult to predict the number of students per year, as all courses require different training syllabi and hence flight hours. The number of slots available for the students depends on the number of jets brought into the squadron pool.
Part of each course is the simulator training, which is very important as the threat level can be further increased compared to actual flights. At Luke AFB the USAF uses contractors such as Draken International, flying Mirage F1s and Top Aces flying F-16s. These aircraft simulate Russian aircraft as realistically as possible, however the sims are capable of offering a more realistic threat. Luke AFB has 12 simulators available to the students and IPs, which can be linked so four ship employment can be executed. With so many training squadrons on base the demand for slots is often much larger than the current capacity. Additional sims are required, most likely the current capacity will be doubled with so-called half dome simulators in the near future. Lt Col Luijsterburg underlines the importance of enough sim capacity on base: “Currently the sims are maxed out with so many pilots on base training their skills. On average in a student syllabus two to three events per week are trained for example CAS, SEAD, Strike etc., mostly first in the sim and then an actual flight. The routine is one or two days of prep time for study and mission planning followed by a flight, where the sim and actual flight are basically identical. The sim flights are almost more difficult than real flights as the sim can generate a lot more threats. For example, we fly four ships missions against 12 adversaries and are always outnumbered by realistic opponents, such as Russian Sukhoi Su-30 and Chinese Chengdu J-10 and Shenyang J-11 jets. It is the real deal; the sims are very realistic with actual threats and missiles shot at us. We really need the sims to train our pilots to learn to operate in the highest threat levels that we may face.”
The Dutch detachment has trained 64 RNLAF pilots since 2019 of which the majority were experienced F-16 pilots doing their conversion. While the Luke detachment is still the driving factor on experience, their focus is gradually moving more towards the training of B-course pilots. The focus back home in The Netherlands on the other hand is on increasing the operational experience within the F-35 community. With an increasing fleet of aircraft and ditto pilots the learning curve for the RNLAF is steep. Recently for example eight F-35As were deployed for two months to Malbork, Poland to support the air policing effort on the NATO Eastern flank and to train with NATO allies.
In October 2021 the RNLAF organised the first Weapons Instructor Course for the F-35. With the increase of experience and more pilots receiving the Weapons School patch on their sleeve, the influence from the Netherlands on specific aspects of the training program at Luke will most likely increase, although Lt Col Luijsterburg is very clear that AETC will remain in the lead as regards to the training syllabus.
Despite the fact that Lt. Col. Luijsterburg only has started flying the F-35 since last September - after more than thirty years of flying the F-16 - he has learned to appreciate the new jet and its capabilities. “Even though the F-16 flew better, this jet is out of this world and has so many capabilities. I just started flying the jet and slowly get to know it’s capabilities. It’s both frustrating and wonderful at the same time.” After finishing his TX-2 training program, he continued with his IP training, besides his regular duties as SNR, meaning a challenging job and long days. No matter how hard the work Lt Col Luijsterburg is very clear about the aircraft. He concludes: “This jet is the future, it is awesome, it is what our air force needs not only now but what it needs for the decades to come. If it is going to be as successful in its development as the F-16 was, it is going to be amazing. We are heading towards around 550 F-35s in Europe with Germany, Switzerland and most likely Finland joining. If we solve the interoperability between our countries in Europe and share what we need to share, Europe is going to be a powerhouse again after many years of budget cuts. It offers the USA the possibility to focus more on the Indo Pacific theatre, with China as a main actor in that region. We need that strong F-35 force in Europe to continue our way of life in our countries and cherish our freedom. I consider myself very lucky to be commanding this detachment and flying this gamechanger!”
Luke AFB and the 308th FS
The airbase was constructed in 1941 and named Luke Field, becoming the largest fighter training base in World War II, graduating over 12,000 fighter pilots. The airbase was named after the Second Lieutenant Frank Luke, who was born in Phoenix, Arizona. He became the number two US flying ace in World War I, scoring 18 aerial victories and posthumously received the Medal of Honor after being killed in action. In the years after WW II the base hosted many fighter training units. In 1991 the 56th FW from MacDill AFB moved its F-16 training to Luke AFB and the base became an exclusive F-16 Fighting Falcon training base. With the reassignment, jurisdiction of Luke AFB was transferred to Air Education and Training and Command (AETC). In 2011, it was announced that the F-35 would replace the F-16 as the primary training aircraft and Luke AFB eventually would house a total of 144 F-35s. Of the nine current fighter squadrons, including two Air Force Reserve units, already five operate the F-35A, one of them being the 308th Fighter Squadron.
The 308th FS finds its origin on 21st January 1942 as the unit was constituted as the 308th Pursuit Squadron at Bear Field, Indiana. After being deployed to Europe and renamed to 308th Fighter Squadron, Single Engine, it operated in England, Marocco, Tunesia, Algeria and mostly in Italy. When WW II ended the unit was withdrawn back to the USA in August 1945 and inactivated in November of the same year. Reactivated in August 1946 the unit started flying jets in 1948 and operated from Georgia. In the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies it flew the F-84 “Thunderjet”, F-100 “Super Sabre” and F-4 “Phantom” and deployed to the UK, Japan, Germany, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Vietnam and Thailand. In 1959 the unit moved to George AFB, California and in 1970 to Homestead AFB, Florida. In 1980 the squadron was redesignated as the 308th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron. In 1986 the squadron converted to the F-16 “Fighting Falcon” and redesignated as the 308th FS in 1991. In 1992 the unit moved to Moody AFB, Georgia. In April 1994 the squadron was assigned to the 56th Operations Group at Luke AFB. The squadron conducted qualification training for the USAF student pilots and proficiency training for the instructor and rated pilots until June 2015, when the unit was inactivated. The 308th FS “Emerald Knights” was reactivated on 30 November 2018 flying the F-35A, and primarily training F-35 crew for the Royal Danish Air Force, RNLAF and USAF. The 308th FS ranks tenth as the most highly decorated unit in Air Force history among the 152 fighter squadrons that were ever active.
Lt Col “Niki” Luijsterburg
Lt Col “Niki” Luijsterburg joined the RNLAF in 1989. After finishing his flight training, he joined 323 Tactical Training Evaluation and Standardization Squadron (TACTESS) in 1992 at Leeuwarden Air Base. In 1996 he was selected to participate as a student of the Dutch Weapons Instructor Course, where he finished best in class and became an IP at the Weapons School. In 1998 he was an exchange
pilot for two years, flying with the 69th FS “Werewolves” at Moody AFB, Georgia, a unit specialised in Combat Search and Rescue. Returning to the Netherlands he re-joined 323 TACTESS and the Weapons School. From 2010 he worked for three years in the Air Systems Requirements Team of the F-35 Joint Program Office in Washington DC. In 2016 he became commander of the RNLAF F-16 detachment at Tucson and started as Senior National Representative at Luke AFB in September 2022. Lt Col Luijsterburg was deployed twelve times in his career, seven times to former Yugoslavia, four times to Afghanistan and once in the fight against ISIS. For his courage during Allied Force 1999 he received the prestigious Flyers Cross award (equivalent to the Distinguished Flying Cross). With more than 4,600 flight hours on the F-16 he is the leading RNLAF fighter pilot with the most flying hours of all.