Military Aviation

US Navy Flight Instructor explains why cross training an experienced Ukrainian fighter pilot on the F-16 could likely take longer than anticipated

Ukrainian Air Force F-16 fighter jet

American-made F-16 fighters will arrive in Ukraine this summer: in fact as already reported, the US will allow its Western allies to supply Ukraine with advanced fighter jets, including Lockheed Martin F-16s, in a major boost for Kyiv.

Ukraine has long sought advanced jets and President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the move as a “historic decision.”

The Ukrainian Air Force is expected to take delivery of the first tranche of a dozen aircraft in July after Ukrainian pilots have been trained and the country’s airfields prepared.

How long should it take an experienced Ukrainian fighter pilot to cross train on the F-16?

Training an experienced Ukrainian fighter pilot on the F-16

‘TL; DR; 6–12 months,’ David Tussey, former US Navy Flight Instructor and A-7 Corsair II pilot, says on Quora.

‘An excellent question, and as a former USN Flight Instructor, I suspect the time frame is longer than we would like, or expect. I would say a minimum of 6 months, and possibly up to a year. The maintenance crews may take somewhat less, as those tasks are often quite specific in nature. Speaking English versus not speaking English might have limited impact for maintenance crews, more so for pilots.

‘Let me reflect on something that happened when I was in USN flight training and early Fleet tours.

‘During the advanced stage of my jet training, the Vietnam war finally ended, and the POWs returned home. Most of the Vietnam era POWs were pilots. And a great many of those guys wanted to resume their military aviation career, and they were fully accorded opportunities to do that.

‘Many of the Naval Aviator former POWs were sent to the Training Command to re-train and re-fresh their flying skills. And I had a chance to fly with several.

An interesting case study

‘Now admittedly this is nowhere near the same thing as taking an experienced Ukrainian pilot who is current and physically fit, but still it’s an interesting case study. And there are some similarities and lessons to be learned, I believe.

‘Some of the pilots had only been held as a POW for a few months; some for years. The whole re-train the POWs was a smorgasbord of skills, motivations, and experience.

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‘And of course, many of these former POWs had advanced in rank during their captivity; LTJGs were now LCDRs, CDRs were now CAPTs. Advancement in rank, but no concomitant advancement in aviation experience.

‘Part of the issue was that the aircraft had changed. The A-4 had been replaced by the A-7. The F-8 had been replaced by the F-4. The A-1D Skyraider was gone completely. Even the training aircraft had changed from the TF-9J Cougar to the TA-4J Skyhawk.

‘It went okay, but not great. The re-training took longer, and was less effective than envisioned. When the former POWs returned to the Fleet (where I flew with several), their aviation skills were behind their peers. Some LCDRs had as much difficulty flying on & off the boat as a brand new Ensign. Same with their tactical skills, which again had changed a lot following Vietnam.’

Lesson learned

Tussey concludes;

‘Again — not equivalent, but I think still relevant.’

‘So — lesson learned. Re-training even “experienced” pilots on a new, advanced aircraft can be fraught with risk, and will likely take longer than anticipated.’

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Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

View Comments

  • While I am not suggesting it will negate the time requirements and certainly not suggesting those former POWs were not motivated, the urgency and motivation of the Ukrainian pilots will be an advantage. While I'm sure that the training was not taken at a leisurely pace, the war was over. I may be wrong in this assumption it seems a reasonable assumption that the pace of training and how hard you push people is different when your desperately needed to fight a war vs peacetime. I would also expect that pushing people very hard such that a significant number fail and have to cycle through training again would be more in line with trying to get pilots into combat for an ongoing war whereas that doesn't seem like the way you would try to rehabilitate and retrain returned POWs after a war is over. I'll admit, I don't have direct experience with this, but it seem reasonable.

    That's not to say the article is incorrect or that these factors will negate the issues the author points out. Quite the contrary, I'm sure he's aware of the things I've pointed about and I have no reason to doubt his assessment. Im just pointing out that they have some things in their favor that will hopefully partially offset the difficulties.

    On the opposite end of the spectrum of course is the elephant in the room. The fact that they fly Soviet designed aircraft which are built with a different philosophy. Not being a pilot, I have no idea how big of a hurdle that is. Is it the case that they know what they need to do and adjust fast because the design of our aircraft places a greater emphasis on the UI (to borrow from computers) or is it totally confusing and requiring of great effort to overcome.

  • I just hope and pray that these pilots are able to make a difference in the war which I truly believe they will ì hope that they are able to get air superiority and hold and dominate it with our U.S fighter jets they deserve to have peace in ther country GODBLESS UKRAINE AMD THE MEN AND WOMEN WHO ARE SERVING AND THE PEOPLE OF UKRAINE ALSO THE PEOPLE WHO ARE VOLUNTEERING TO FIGHT WITH THE UKRAINES MILITARY

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