Chilean air force hoping F-16 program takes off

Chilean air force Capt. Erich Opplinger is strapped into the F-16 by U.S. Air Force Capt. Matt Yeatter Tuesday at Cannon Air Force Base. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By David Irvin: CNJ staff writer

A group of Chilean air force officers are visiting Cannon Air Force Base this week, learning how the U.S. Air Force maintains, flies, and keeps the F-16 Fighting Falcon operational.

They arrived Sunday evening and will leave today, Air Force officials said.

“The Chilean air force has purchased 10 F-16s, and they are going to be getting the first one in theater in January of 2006,” said Capt. Michele Tibbitts, a political-military officer from Davis-Mothan Air Force Base.

The Cannon trip will provide a hands-on view of all major areas involved with the operation of F-16 bases, a press release from Cannon public affairs showed. Officers traveling in the Chilean group are trained in plane maintenance, operational safety, logistics, intelligence and training.

The Chilean air force has acquired aircraft from the United States before in similar cooperative projects. Tibbitts said the process of purchasing planes from the United States takes awhile, time spent on “subject matter” exchanges between the two countries and formal training.

“It’s a continuation of cooperation in aviation acquirement between Chile and the United States,” she said.

One of the pilots selected to fly Chile’s new F-16s is Capt. Erich Opplinger. First, he said he had to learn to speak English. “Then we came to the United States and learned to fly the marvelous F-16,” he said.

Before being chosen for the falcon, Opplinger flew F-5s, a plane operational in the Chilean air force since 1976, he said. He believes the United States Air Force is a good model.

“The Air Force teaches a way to do things. We are trying to follow and we are trying to implement in our air force what the United States Air Force (does),” he said. “We have our own way of thinking, but mainly we follow the U. S. guides …”
Tibbitts said the F-16s purchased are the newest model available, Block 50s. The planes are being manufactured now, but in April 2005 Lockheed Martin will hold a roll-out ceremony in Fort Worth. In all, the contract is worth more than $500 million dollars, she said.

Capt. Felipe Ortega of the Chilean air force oversees training processes in his home country.

“We need to implement the training system of the United States Air Force in our country, implement experiences, and implement methods as much as we can,” he said.
Capt. Edwardo Cudra, a safety officer, said he is here to learn scheduling methods, safety procedures for the rules of engagement and how to deal with hazardous materials issues.

Lt. Col. Ken Rizer, commander of the 523rd Fighter Squadron that is hosting the Chilean officers, said this is an opportunity for them to compare their operations with another high-tech air force and learn how to maintain and operate the new planes once in Chile.

“I would imagine that most air forces, especially an air force like theirs, would operate very similar to us,” Rizer said. “They may see some things that we do a little bit differently, but I think in general it’s probably very, very similar.”

He said the Chileans speak beautiful English and there were no problems with communication.

The Chilean officers said they were enjoying their trip through America. Next they will travel to Albuquerque to visit the Air National Guard stationed there and then proceed to Tucson, Ariz., where they will meet with the 355th Wing at Davis-Mothan Air Base.

“Your hospitality is great,” Ortega said.