April 13, 2009

Of Fighter Pilots, F-16s, Grim Reapers, Air Guards and Airlines

Last weeks' news item about "Suicide by F-16" sparked several thoughts, happily none of them suicide-related.

Have you ever experienced the "suddenly they're everywhere" phenomenon? For example, your friend takes you for a drive in her new car, a model you've never really noticed before, and in the next few days you see loads of these cars and it's like all of a sudden they're everywhere? Well the same thing happened to me with fighter jets. One day a pair of F-16s are scrambled by Wisconsin Air National Guard and the next I'm seeing all sorts of F-16 related stuff. Admittedly, I went looking for some of it. Like the Air National Guard thing. I was curious about how many American states have their own fighter jets. Turns out a lot of them do.

Have you ever flown into a commercial airport, on a commercial flight, but seen some military planes parked away on the far side of the airport? In America those planes often belong to Air National Guard of the state in which you are landing. Checking out the "local" air guard, I found that the military jets I had noticed at Syracuse airport, which I sometimes fly from, were F-16s from the 174th Fighter Wing of the New York Air National Guard.

Purely from a design and engineering perspective, the F-16 is an impressive machine. The design has a sports car look to it and performance to match. The F-16 has a thrust-to-weight ratio greater than one, which means it has enough power to climb and accelerate vertically. F-16s are used by several flying demonstration teams including the USAF Thunderbirds and the Royal Netherlands Airforce F-16 DEMOTEAM. The cockpit, which comes in one- and two-seater configurations, is designed so the pilot's position is semi-recumbent, rather than sitting up straight. Apparently this helps pilots handle the terrific G-forces the plane is capable of generating during maneuvers.

So as I am Googling through this stuff I find out that the the 174th Fighter Wing is losing its F-16s. They are being replaced with Reapers. What's a Reaper? An MQ-9, a.k.a. Predator "B", as in great big brother to the Predator drone. The Reaper is an unmanned aircraft with a wingspan wider than a regional passenger jet and the ability to stay aloft for over 40 hours while carrying hundreds of pounds of bombs and missiles.

The Reaper is worthy of a separate blog post, but the point that caught my eye about this huge shift for the New York Air National Guard is the effect on pilots. Out of 30 F-16 pilots with the 174th, only 20 are staying on to fly the robot planes. Which got me thinking. Maybe a shift to drones will help the commercial airlines, who are finding it hard to get experienced pilots.

I'm also wondering if the Reapers will be physically based in Syracuse, in which case I may see them on my next flight out of there. But being drones, I guess it's possible that they could be flying anywhere, while still being piloted from Syracuse. And that's what I call a trip.

(BTW, the pic in this post is from the web site of the Royal Netherlands Airforce F-16 DEMOTEAM, shot by P. van Uffelen © 55 jaar 313 Volkel 2008. The pic in the previous post was from the incredibly detailed Wikipedia entry about the F-16.)

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