(Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Lt. Col. Engberg and Lt. Col. Meyer are the 388th Fighter Wing’s last F-16 squadron commanders.)
HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah — In honor of the F-16, whose operational service here is coming to a close this year, we continue our two-week tribute to the men and women of the 388th Fighter Wing and Team Hill who have supported Viper’s combat mission for the past 38 years.
Last week, we recounted the first 13 years of F-16 operations here, ending with the outstanding service of the 4th, 34th and 421st Tactical Fighter Squadrons in Operation Desert Storm. Following Desert Storm, the 388th FW began a period of service with the F-16 in the Middle East, which would span over 25 years and include an incredible 32 separate deployments.
After Saddam Hussein was ousted from Kuwait in 1991, the United States and its coalition partners implemented Operations Northern and Southern Watch to deter further Iraqi aggression. The 388th FW’s F-16s participated in these operations almost immediately, with the 34th Fighter Squadron deploying within a year of Desert Storm. The 4th and 421st Fighter Squadrons also deployed multiple times in support of these operations. Though they did not involve continual combat operations, Northern and Southern Watch missions often faced anti-aircraft fire and their F-16s responded with air-to-surface attacks. The Airmen on these deployments also faced terrorist attacks, including the bombing of the Khobar Towers complex in 1996, which injured multiple 388th FW personnel. Thankfully none were among the 19 killed in the attack. Additionally, Hill AFB F-16s were never far from sustained combat action, participating in several operations including flying dozens of combat missions employing precision-guided munitions in Operation Desert Fox in 1998.
As they did for all Americans, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, brought about significant change for Viper operators and maintainers in the 388th FW. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq developed into close-contact battles between ground forces, the air war also changed from one characterized primarily by detached strike operations to close-air support of friendly ground forces. The F-16 team again adapted to this new norm and forged a highly successful record in this environment. The 421st FS led the effort by executing the first F-16 deployment from the wing in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
During this time, Balad Air Base became the hub of air operations in Iraq and a second home to 388th FW Airmen, with the wing executing eight deployments to Iraq in support of this operation. All three fighter squadrons deployed between 2007 and 2009 in support of the surge intended to reverse the tide of insurgency in Iraq and set the conditions needed to establish a stable government in the country. During the surge, pilots employed improved tactics flying over 22,000 hours in support of thousands of air strike requests and hundreds of situations with friendly forces under direct enemy fire. The Viper also continued to evolve during this period to better support combat operations with enhancements including combined laser/GPS guided munitions, satellite radios and improved datalink capabilities to help pilots communicate with ground forces and employ precise weapons in the exact location required.
Finally, this period also saw the first-ever ‘Total Force Integration’ of 419th FW reserve Airmen in a combined effort with active-duty 388th FW Airmen. This concept leveraged the vast experience of reserve Airmen and deployed them side-by-side with active-duty Airmen, multiplying the combat capability of both units in a concept that would become the norm for the rest of the F-16’s tenure here.
As the present decade approached and the nation’s effort shifted again to stem the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, the men and women of Hill AFB’s F-16 units were called to serve in this very different environment. The 421st FS again deployed as the first F-16 unit to Afghanistan itself. Along with flying nearly 1,000 combat sorties, 421st maintainers built the F-16 operation at Bagram Airfield from the “ground up,” constructing a phase dock, supply building, fuel barn and munitions support bunkers. This effort earned accolades from the Expeditionary Operations Group Commander, Col. Patrick T. McKenzie. Describing the ‘Black Widows,’ he said that “the 421st FS has unparalleled esprit de corps and tremendous focus…and [executed with] impeccable squadron weapons employment.”
The 34th FS followed directly on the heels of the Widows in its last F-16 deployment, flying nearly 1,500 hours. F-16 maintainers and support personnel again showed their mettle in this effort, enabling a 20-year-old F-16, tail number 2119, to set a record by flying 40 combat missions without any maintenance issues. The 4th FS quickly followed the ‘Rams’ for this round of deployments, employing weapons over 200 times in support of friendly forces.
Years 2015 and 2016 saw highly successful efforts from the entire F-16 team here as the 4th and 421st Fighter Squadrons, in concert with their brothers and sisters from the 466th FS, led the final two F-16 deployments from Hill AFB. Now in service for over 25 years, the pilots and maintainers of the F-16C only asked more of themselves and their venerable aircraft as the ‘Fuujins’ deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. During their six-month deployment in 2015, the Fuujins flew over 2,000 missions in support of friendly forces, employing 72 weapons and over 1,300 gun rounds in support of friendly forces. Ever innovating, the 4th FS and 4th Aircraft Maintenance Unit comprised the first F-16C team to employ an AGM-65L ‘Laser Maverick’ in combat. Most importantly, the Fuujins protected friendly forces in 72 “troops-in-contact” situations where friendly forces faced direct enemy fire.
The Black Widows followed the Fuujins a year later in 2016, saving the largest F-16C deployment from Hill since Desert Storm for last. In this effort, the 421st deployed 18 F-16Cs to serve as the only fast close-air support aircraft for all of Afghanistan. A tremendous responsibility, Black Widow operators and maintainers provided 181 days of continuous close-air support and 15-minute alert to forces across the country. As part of this effort, the squadron flew nearly 3,000 missions employing 114 weapons and 7,600 gun rounds. Never resting on their laurels, these Airmen continued the 388th FW tradition of innovation. Making the F-16C more effective in its close-air support mission, the 421st developed tactics and logistics needed to field laser guided rockets, executing the first-ever combat shot of the weapon from a fixed-wing aircraft in April 2016.
The return of the Black Widows from Afghanistan in May 2016 marked the culminating event of over 38 years of F-16 service at Hill Air Force Base. Following this effort, F-16 operations here began drawing down to make room for the next generation of combat capability represented in the F-35A Lightning II. While F-16 pilots and maintainers continue transitioning to other F-16 bases or to the F-35A, the F-16 aircraft will transfer to Holloman AFB, New Mexico, this summer to serve in a new role: training the next generation of fighter pilots.
As we prepare the last F-16s to depart for the last time, it causes many of us to pause and reflect on the incredible record of F-16 service here. As arguably the most successful fighter aircraft in history, the Viper evolved multiple times across nearly four decades of service at Hill into an aircraft its developers could scarcely have imagined. This is a fitting testament to her capability, but an even more fitting tribute to the 388th FW Airmen who flew and maintained the mighty Viper. As has always been the case, it is the men and women who served during this time who enabled nearly four decades of F-16 flying and over 25 years of continuous combat operations. These Airmen tirelessly maintained her, lovingly prepared her and her pilots for combat, and flew her into harm’s way. They are the true heroes of this incredible time in the history of combat airpower at Hill Air Force Base.