Pulling up to the base, Royal Netherlands air force Lt. Col. Bart Bakker hands his ID card to the security forces Airman at the gate, returns a salute, and makes the short drive to his unit.
He loves starting the day interacting with the gate guards. “They’re friendly. They remind me of the things I love about the Air National Guard — everyone here is friendly, like a community really.”
During the short drive to the 148th Fighter Squadron, he takes notice of nine international flags flying near the entrance of the Arizona Air National Guard Base attached to the Tucson International Airport. Each flag represents a country that is currently training on the F-16 Fighting Falcon here, though several others have participated before.
“Things certainly have changed,” Bakker thinks to himself as he drives by.
It has been roughly 25 years since Bakker, along with the first batch of international students, arrived in Tucson for training on their 12 F-16s, which arrived not long before they did.
Back then, the Netherlands was the only country being trained here; but that has changed over the years.
“There has been a big leap from when I came through here,” said Bakker, who was a second lieutenant when he originally arrived from undergraduate pilot training at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. Now he’s the Dutch advisor and right-hand man to the 148th FS commander.
“While I was here, there were talks about other nationalities wanting to do a similar kind of scheme,” he said. “Now those talks are reality. (It) kind of speaks a lot about this program — everyone wants a piece of it.”
Currently, three fighter squadrons are on base for the training, including students from countries as diverse as Poland and Iraq. However, only one squadron is composed entirely of people from the same foreign country, and that is the Dutch.
Bakker enters his squadron building, which has been made to feel like home. F-16 posters adorn the squadron’s “heritage room,” but the text on each poster is in Dutch. The country’s flags hang above the long wooden countertop. Even the survival kit issued to them by the U.S. aircrew flight equipment team is nearly identical to the one they’ll be using in the Netherlands, with some local modifications.
When Lt. Col. Alex Wilson, the 148th FS commander and an instructor pilot, is asked about his squadron, he answers by saying “it’s It’s their squadron, not mine.”
Walking through the building, the fighter squadron feels similar to any other fighter squadron in the States, but something is a tad different.
“We try to make this squadron as similar as possible,” said Wilson, who also is an instructor pilot, flying weekly. “The way we brief and debrief, everything in between — we want to do it the Dutch way here for the students, so there are no issues to transition into their home squadron.”
Though this squadron is housed on the Arizona base, the U.S. Air Force has arranged the squadron to resemble what the Dutch pilots will see when they return home and start flying operationally.
Stepping into the unit’s conference room for a meeting, Bakker sits down. Wilson walks in minutes later. Not much earlier, he was flying lead in a 1V1 exercise, which is pilot lingo for one fighter facing off against another in a dogfight.
“Sorry for being a little late,” Wilson says, going for a seat right next to Bakker. “This morning, I was the flight lead for a low-level surface attack. A Dutch student was in the second airplane with a Dutch instructor in the back seat.”
Each day, the squadron flies eight lines of flights, with nearly all missions including both countries. The pilots are initial F-16 students, and students who have returned for upgrade training after four months of theater training in the Netherlands.
In the Netherlands, pilots aren’t able to train as extensively as their air force senior leaders require, so the training is a necessity.
“Weather is a factor in the Netherlands, so we come here,” Bakker said. “Some of the things we do here are unpopular in the Netherlands — flying low and fast, making noise, flying at night. We can do all of that here, especially with two maintenance shifts, compared to our one shift back home.”
When Bakker arrived here, things were indeed different from today. The F-16 has seen a dozen updates, to both physical components and avionics. Dozens of countries have passed through the door, and the enemy and their capabilities now look different.
But it’s the handful of things that are similar that makes Tucson Bakker’s second home.
“For me, it’s kind of special to be back here. It’s a complete circle,” said Bakker, who has fought alongside Americans in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Bosnia since graduating 25 years ago. “The (Air National) Guard feels like one family with everyone taking care of each other — that’s something that always stuck with me of my memory here. It’s easy to fall into. Even now, I run into people that I’ve run into years ago as a student.”
The relationship built between the Dutch and Americans is one that both parties value. For roughly four years in the mid-2000s, the Dutch conducted their F-16 training in another location before coming back to Tucson.
“This job lets me make an impact,” Wilson said. “When I came through, the Dutch were part of our training here. It felt unnatural when we were apart. When they weren’t here, it didn’t feel right. They were part of our group.”
Though both men love their jobs — each describing being a flying commander and advisor as “the fighter pilot’s dream” — the big picture never leaves their site.
“We’re very focused on the Dutch training mission, supporting an ally that is lockstep with us for so many of the contingency operations we’ve been in for the last two decades,” said Wilson, who also noted that this current program has been committed to through 2018, and, in the future, may include F-35 Lightning II training as the Dutch have recently acquired two aircraft.
Bakker’s real-world experience is a testament to this international training.
“During Bosnia, Kosovo (and) Afghanistan, we basically played from the same sheet of music,” Bakker said. “It’s so important that we don’t forget about this standard. Though we may have some particular things we do differently in our procedures, the American pilots are fully integrated. It makes it very valuable.”
The model the 148th FS has created is something both men hope will be used in the bigger picture.
“This is the way we need to continue to focus on flying — standardization throughout NATO,” Bakker said. “We can just jump in together and go. We don’t need to train for months beforehand in order to deploy together.”
Wilson noted, “We’re speaking a common language in the brief. Other than the accent on the radio, you wouldn’t know who’s flying next to you.”
For each American instructor pilot, there is a Dutch counterpart — four American instructor pilots and four Dutch.
With an upcoming mission approaching, Wilson goes over pertinent information for the mission and dismisses the aircrew for their sortie.
As the Air Force crew chief prepares the jet, Bakker leans in and extends his arm around the Airman, exchanging what appears to be a joke as both laugh from across the jet.
As the planes begin to taxi past Bakker, the pilots render a salute. Bakker returns it, followed by a shaka, and the jets are off.
Looking out over the flight line as the jets climb, Bakker pauses while sitting in his golf cart
Much has certainly changed since the “idea” of bringing the Netherlands to Tucson occurred and became a reality, he said.
As he watches the F-16 take off, he imagines it transforming into what aircraft they could be training on in the future: the F-35.
“That’s the next frontier,” Bakker said. “Not just for the U.S. Air Force, but for the Dutch. We’re not just building F-16 pilots, but also future F-35 pilots.”