By Capt. Suzanne VanderWeyst , 115FW
/ Published July 17, 2009
MADISON, Wis. -- Four pilots with the 115th Fighter Wing proved developing the bonds of comradeship with coalition partners can occur in the most unique situations when they delivered four F-16 Fighting Falcons to Araxos Air Base, Greece, on June 20.
Lt. Cols. Bruce Fischer, Matt McCunn and Doug Read and Maj. Bart Van Roo flew four new F-16s purchased by the Hellenic Air Force. This is the first F-16 contract they've had with Lockheed since the Air Base began their conversion from the A-7 Corsair to the F-16.
As the pilots taxied in on a fresh asphalt taxiway into a shiny new hangar finished the day before, they were each met by the Greek pilots of the newly delivered F-16s. From the initial shaking of hands and trading of patches, to a formal reception in the hangar, the 115th FW pilots said they were received by the 116th Combat Wing members like they were part of the family.
"It's certainly very rare to get an opportunity to do something like this ... to bring F-16s to one of our allied partners there and have instant friends when you land, even though we have never met them before," said Colonel Fischer, 115th Fighter Wing Air Sovereignty Alert commander.
Even with all the countries Lockheed delivers aircraft to, Major Van Roo, 176th Fighter Squadron assistant director of operations, said the rarity of the experience is so high because there are so few deliveries that any one pilot would get to do.
The opportunity for the 115th FW pilots arose in part from Colonel Read's former working relationship and ongoing friendship with the current 116th CW commander, Col. Kostas Vouzios, who was his squadron commander during a one year remote active duty tour at Nea Anchialos Air Base also located in Greece. When the Greeks purchased their second F-16 contract with Lockheed in 1997, part of what they paid for was two American instructors to come over and train them for a year on the aircraft. Colonel Read was chosen to be one of the instructors who flew with one of their squadrons.
However, it was another relationship he made while stationed in Greece that brought the prospect of the F-16 delivery to his attention. During his year there, Colonel Read met the Lockheed rep who lived in Greece, Ken Hayes, who just moved back to Greece recently to manage the current purchase. Both Colonel Read and his wife are good friends with Mr. Hayes and his wife and keep in touch with each other.
"When I found out Kostas was the wing commander, I thought it'd be nice if we could go over and take him some airframes," said Colonel Read, 115th Operations Support Flight commander. "So when the Lockheed folks got back to us and said not only do they have one but four (aircraft) to take over, we welcomed (the opportunity)."
The reception of all the 115th FW pilots given by Colonel Vouzios and the 116 CW was characteristic of the same Greek hospitality Colonel Read recalls experiencing during his previous time there.
"The relationship is really the neat part of the whole thing because ... we can learn a lot from them in terms of hospitality," said Colonel Read. "They just have a wonderful level of hospitality they extend to you when you're over there."
The extension of that hospitality was shown also to the spouses, Lt. Col. Anne Fischer, Kelly McCunn and Wendy Read, who were able to fly separately, at their own expense, and be there for the reception of the four pilots.
"When I was stationed there in 1997, there was an opportunity to take my family over and have them with me, it would just be at my expense, and when I first met Colonel Vouzios, he was absolutely insistent that I do that because they wanted to welcome the family over there and extend the hospitality to them," said Colonel Read. "The family thing is very important to them, and having Wendy go back and the other wives go, that shows."
The day after the pilots arrived, the Greek squadron hosted a family get together. They shared about flying, family, what they do in their country, how they're going to use the aircraft and they training they do.
"It was neat to really get to know them a little bit even if it's only for a few days, and see how they're going to use them, what they think of us and our training and what they think of their training," said Major Van Roo. "There's a level of trust there with what we're doing, in particular since Colonel Read had been there and worked with several of the guys who happened to be at this wing ... so we got some special insight into it all."
A level of trust that Colonel McCunn, 115th FW Air Sovereignty Alert director of operations, said extends all the way to the current Hellenic Air Force chief of staff who was the 111th Combat Wing commander when Read was there.
"The relationships go both ways because the impressions (their leadership) got from Colonel Read, which were obviously favorable, will certainly influence their thoughts of the USAF," said Colonel McCunn.
In the end, all the pilots described the most valuable aspect of the experience being the relational ties between two coalition air forces they were able to strengthen.
"I think it's really important for us to get outside the walls and the borders of our country and go to places, meet other people and see how they do things," said Colonel Fischer. "If we were ever to wind up going and fighting alongside these people it sure is nice to have something to fall back on, even just a little insight, knowledge and understanding of the people you may be working with."