On Jun. 15, 2021 Royal Air Force (RAF) Squadron Leader Alexander Thorne, 94th Fighter Squadron Foreign Exchange Officer (FEO) stepped towards his F-22 Raptor stealth fighter on Joint Base Langley-Eustis tarmac for a final time in the Virginia sunshine.
As told by by Staff Sgt. Ericha Fitzgerald, 633d Air Base Wing Public Affairs, in the article The Adventure of a Lifetime over three and a half years, he participated in two deployments and flew countless missions in the F-22 side-by-side with his American counterparts.
Although his departure is bitter sweet, he reveled in the excitement of RAF Squadron Leader David Wild, an old friend, preparing to take the stick and in the significance of the flight they were about to perform – the first formation of F-22 Raptors ever flown by Royal Air Force pilots.
“It was surreal. The first time I ever flew an F-22 I couldn’t believe the power and significance of what that moment meant,” he said. “But to fly in a Raptor, instructing an old buddy from home, that I hadn’t flown with since I was his instructor on the Typhoon weapons instructor course was awesome.”
Reserved for special occasions, the formation received the call-sign “Fiske” in honor of American native William Meade Lindley “Billy” Fiske III who became a legend in the United Kingdom for his military actions.
“Fiske was really the original foreign exchange officer,” said Thorney. “He didn’t have to fight for us, he didn’t have to fly with our pilots, but he did; because he believed in what we were fighting for.”
According to the Billy Fiske Foundation, Fiske was born in Chicago but grew up all over Europe due to his father’s position as an international banker. He attended Cambridge University, became a member of the exclusive White’s Club in London and would later win two gold medals in bobsleighing for the American Olympic team.
Fiske quickly formed intimate friendships with members of the No. 601 Squadron, Auxiliary Air Force, who convinced him to get his pilot’s license – a decision that would lead him to eagerly volunteer for the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain.
When asked by friends and family about his reason for joining the war he wrote, “The English have been damn good to me in good times. So, naturally, I feel I ought to try and help out in bad times if I can.”
In the span of 27 days Fiske flew 42 sorties, shot down two aircraft, damaged an additional two, and forced a German bomber into a balloon barrage. He died from injuries sustained when his aircraft was shot down on Aug. 17, 1940. His sacrifice would be honored long after his passing and his legacy enhanced trans-Atlantic relations for years to come – a sentiment shared by Thorney and his participation in the FEO program.
The FEO program strengthens ties between America and UK by integrating a member of the RAF into the 94th Fighter Squadron as a pilot, mentor, and instructor. The first-hand experience allows for improved tactical and technical understandings between the countries while also enhancing interoperability.
“What do I think of my time with the 94th?” Thorney remarks with a smirk, “Best adventure of my life.”
“I’m here, flying your apex fighter, in a program that’s highly classified, in a jet that’s highly classified, ready to deploy with you and serve your great nation at any moment,” Thorney said. “I don’t think many other people do that. I don’t think many countries have that level of trust…More important than me, more important than this unit, I think it’s a symbol of how closely we work together.”
Actually the first RAF pilot to fly the F-22 had been Flt Lt Dan Robinson, who also had the distinction of landing the first Raptor to touch down on UK soil in 2008 as part of a three-ship of F-22s which took part in Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) and in Farnborough International Airshow. Also an instructor on the US type, Robinson was formerly a qualified weapons instructor on the RAF’s Panavia Tornado F3 fighter.
The pilot exchange program has been an important part of the military relationship between the US and UK for many years.
The purpose of the pilot exchange is to embed experienced exchange aircrews within a squadron, allowing them to become part of the host country’s air force for a three-year period. During this time, the exchange pilot has an opportunity to learn about Air Force procedures, tactics and capabilities and learn about the cultural differences between the two countries and their air forces. Exchange aircrews offer the hosting unit a different perspective than what they are used to.
Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Ericha Fitzgerald / U.S. Air Force
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