Friday, January 18, 2008

Changing of the Guard

There was a swap-out at Kunsan AB, Korea this week, as the 8th Fighter Wing exchanged its older Block 30 F-16s, for slightly newer Block 40 jets from Eielson AFB, Alaska. The Block 30s from "The Kun" will now be based at Eielson, where they will form a new Aggressor Squadron, providing adversary air training for units throughout the Pacific.

Before leaving Kunsan, the 20 departing jets received a new "Arctic" paint scheme, which will help "friendly" aircraft differentiate the Aggressors from other F-16s. In their new role, the Block 30s at Eielson will perform the role of "enemy" fighters in Red Flag Alaska and other exercises. While Air Force officials stress that the new paint scheme are not representative of any hostile country, Aggressor pilots typically mimic the tactics of adversary MiG-29s and SU-27s found in the region where they are based.

Arrival of the Block 40s represents a changing of the guard at Kunsan, which was one of the first active duty fighter wings to operate the Block 30. Those jets are unique among the various operational versions of the F-16; they were the first Vipers to use the General Electric F110 engine, which produced about 5,000 more pounds of thrust than the comparable Pratt & Whitney powerplant. The meet the requirements of the GE engine, Block 30s were fitted with a larger air in-take, which earned them the "Big Mouth" nickname., a superb on-line resource for all matters relating to the Viper, has a detailed discussion of the Block 30, and how it differs from the similar, Block 32 models. Originally, all Block 30s were supposed to accept either the Pratt & Whitney or the GE engines. However, the P&W powerplant couldn't accommodate the additional air needed by the F110, so the Block 32s were fitted with the smaller intake, found on earlier F-16 models.

With the Block 40s, Kunsan will get an F-16 with better avionics, a helmet-mounted cueing system and a modular computer similar to those found on Block 50 models. The jets arriving in Korea will be assigned to the 80th Fighter Squadron (the Juvats). Kusan's other fighter squadron, the 35th, swapped out its aircraft last fall.

Departure of the last Block 30s means the end of an era at "the Kun." As a unit-level spook, I pulled a tour with the 8th Fighter Wing in the early 1990s. Located less than 200 miles from the DMZ, there was never any doubt about the validity of our mission--or the capabilities of our jets. During my tenure with the wing, we trained for everything from nuclear strike, to the defense of high-value recce assets over the Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan.

We averaged one major exercise a month, enough to keep us intimate with our chem gear--and the tip of the "Wolfpack" spear razor sharp. For pilots, Kunsan offered some of the best tactical flying in the world, with few of the airspace restrictions that limited training in portions of the United States and Europe. The rest of us got a chance to hone our skills in a venue where the threat was hardly abstract. North Korean MiGs could reach our base in only 20 minutes; the flight time for a SCUD missile was far less.

Standing on the flightline on a cold winter day, there was nothing more impressive than watching a couple of "Big Mouth" Vipers thunder into the sky. Kunsan was--and is--a remote assignment; being away from family and friends for a year sucked, to be blunt about it. But we knew why we were there, and understood that we had an excellent jet (and superb pilots) to carry out the wing's assignments, backed by an equally outstanding support team.

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