US will start training Ukrainian pilots on F-16s at air base in Arizona

FILE - U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jet is on display during the Paris Air Show in Le Bourget, north of Paris, France, Monday, June 19, 2023. The U.S. will start training Ukrainian pilots to fly U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets, beginning at an Air National Guard base in October, the Pentagon said Thursday, Aug. 24. (AP Photo/Lewis Joly, File) (Lewis Joly, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. will start training Ukrainian pilots to fly U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets, beginning at an Air National Guard base in October, the Pentagon said Thursday.

The training is part of a U.S. and European effort to get the advanced fighter jets to Ukraine for its defense against invading Russian forces.

The announcement came as President Joe Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to commemorate Ukraine's Independence Day and to reiterate support for the effort to fight back Russian troops.

The two discussed the F-16 training, and Biden assured Zelenskyy of an expedited approval for other nations to transfer their F-16s to Ukraine once training is completed, the White House said in a statement.

Zelenskyy thanked Biden, Congress and “all Americans” in a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “The U.S. took the lead in rallying global support for Ukraine. This crucial leadership enabled our struggle and bent the arc of history toward good.”

U.S. military officials stress it takes years of training to be able to field F-16 squadrons, limiting the impact the aircraft will have on Ukraine’s defense for the near future.

“This is about the long-term support to Ukraine,” the Pentagon spokesman, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, told reporters in Washington. “This is not about the counteroffensive that they’re conducting right now.”

The training will take place at Morris Air National Guard base in Tucson, Arizona. The pilots will first undergo English instruction at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, to bring their fluency up to the level needed to operate the aircraft, starting next month, Ryder said.

Ukraine has long pressed for the American fighter jets to help defend its cities and forces from Russian artillery and aviation. Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway announced in recent days they would supply the aircraft to Ukraine.

Ryder said the U.S. decided to join European allies in the training to avoid bottlenecks in bringing Ukrainian pilots up to speed.

The U.S. training would accommodate “several” Ukrainian fighter pilots and dozens of maintenance people for the jets, he said.

For experienced pilots, training can range around five months, Ryder said. He sketched out courses covering the basics. In addition to flying the advanced craft, they include formation flying, operating weapons, air combat and suppressing air defense systems, on top of centrifuge training on the ground to help pilots withstand the g-forces of an F-16 cockpit.