x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Fast learners in Desert Falcons

Supersonic dogfights with US aces are all part of the training for the pilots of the UAE Air Force.

Two of the UAE Air Force's new F-16 Block 60 fighters flying behind a French-made MIrage jet fighter.
Two of the UAE Air Force's new F-16 Block 60 fighters flying behind a French-made MIrage jet fighter.

For every gut-wrenching dogfight exercise at supersonic speeds, Capt Saeed Zaabi and his fellow pilots at Al Dhafra Air Base exude more of the confidence typical of their American instructors. The UAE Air Force is nearing the end of rigorous training to prepare it to take control of the Middle East's most advanced jet fighters, F-16 Block 60 - known as the Desert Falcon. For nearly four years, pilots and maintenance crews have received hundreds of hours of instruction from US Air Force pilots and engineers from Lockheed Martin, the US manufacturer of the single-engine jet.

"We're training more and more people. We're feeling confident," Capt Zaabi said as jets roared past. He is a graduate of the second class of UAE fighter pilots to pass through a training course on the Block 60, taught by American aviators at the Arizona Air National Guard base in Tucson. The training for the UAE "top guns" has been ongoing since 2004 in America and the UAE. It includes intensive examinations, maintenance courses and hours of flight exercises each week.

"It was hard, exciting. Everything you did was something new," Capt Zaabi said. "You learn, like a professional." One of the most exhilarating aspects of his American training, he said, were the simulated dogfights alongside - and often against -seasoned US Air Force pilots, who had logged thousands of hours of flight time in the F-16s. "Beating them is not an easy task," said Capt Zaabi, who accumulated about 350 hours of training in the Block 60. "One of the guys I flew with had 5,000 hours of fight time in the F-16. That's a big difference."

Eighty of the advanced fighters have been bought by the Government for US$6.8bn (Dh25bn), the first of which arrived in the UAE on May 3, 2005. The programme has significantly enhanced the country's air defence capability, and complements another upgrade to its French-made Mirage fighter jets. The Block 60 is the most sophisticated version of the F-16 Fighting Falcon, a staple of the US Air Force that has undergone numerous upgrades over three decades of service.

The aircraft has enhanced radar, colour displays for pilots, enlarged fuel capacity and improved firepower. Final specifications for the UAE's fleet have not been announced. However, the original Block 60s were designed as dual role, air and ground attack aircraft. An array of weapons allows them to engage targets at range and in dogfights, while reaching a top speed of 1,333mph (Mach 2). Until the full introduction of "next generation" jet fighters such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and F-22 Raptor, the country's Block 60s are more advanced than those used by many Nato countries.

Engineers and flight technicians have needed ongoing instruction to keep pace with constant upgrades to the aircraft's components, and the English manuals that cover them. Ahmad Salem, 29, a chief specialising in electrical systems on the Block 60s, had to take a one-month English course before taking seven months of training in Fort Worth, Texas, with Lockheed Martin technicians, four of whom are in the UAE to help crewmen with maintenance and upkeep.

"Some countries translate their manuals," said Chief Salem, who is from Ras al Khaimah. "Everything for us is in English, the manuals, the terminology, all of it. "There are constant updates made to these planes, so we have to be able to understand them in English." However strenuous their training might have been, the UAE crewmen look back fondly at their time in America. They developed camaraderie with American aviators, joining them for backyard barbecues, a favourite weekend pastime in the United States that crewmen said brought back memories of childhood mashwas in the UAE.

During Ramadan, UAE crewmen invited American military personnel and their families to a mosque in Arizona to break the fast. "You know how the Americans are," Capt Zaabi said. "They're always really curious and interested in these kind of things. We made a big iftar in the mosque. They joined us in our culture." The Americans declined to fast, but "they still enjoyed the food". During their spare time, UAE crewmen travelled throughout the country, visiting such places as Los Angeles and the Grand Canyon.

Mr Salem and several of his friends even watched a few rodeos, notoriously rowdy events where cowboys ride bucking bulls and lasso steers. "We only saw this stuff on TV, but it was really fun to see them doing it in person," he said. And yet, with their growing confidence, the UAE Block 60 team expressed a sense of responsibility and sacrifice that comes with military life. For one thing, their families often live far from Al Dhafra Base. When they are not alone in their barracks or eating with crewmen at the mess hall, they make long weekend drives to visit wives and help children with their studies.

Capt Ahmed Naimi, a father of five, said he had to race to his interview with The National after taking his seven-year-old son to his first day of school. "It's tough for us," he said. "But we know what we have to do. We have a responsibility to our country." @Email:hnaylor@thenational.ae