A formation of fighter aircraft races across the sky, performing acrobatic feats that appear to defy the laws of physics. The crowd looks on in amazement as the jets roar through the air. The airshow’s announcer keeps the audience in suspense as the formation builds up for the next precision maneuver.
For one 6-year old boy, from the seaside of Rome, this was the spark that ignited a passion for aviation and set him on the path to join the Italian Air Force and eventually come to America to fly as part of the Military Personnel Exchange Program.
“I remember there was one particular day that instead of watching the actual airplanes I started looking at the little helmet that you could see inside the airplane,” said Capt. “Pinna”, an Italian Air Force exchange pilot with the 74th Fighter Squadron. “I started thinking, there is a guy in there, like, he’s having so much fun … flying these fast machines around the sky. And I started liking it and I started reading a lot about airplanes, in general, about what the air force does and that’s when my dream of becoming a pilot started.”
In the Italian Air Force, “Pinna” flew the AMX, a single-seat, single-engine, light fighter aircraft, for about five years and then he got the opportunity that he says anyone in the close air support community would dream of – the chance to join the U.S. Air Force’s foreign exchange pilot program and fly the A-10 Thunderbolt II.
“I was excited, I was absolutely out of my mind when my commander called me into the office and said, ‘Hey do you want to be the exchange pilot and go fly A-10s?’ I was like ‘Absolutely!’ and I almost cried,” recalls “Pinna”.
The exchange program provides officers with the opportunities to participate in personnel exchanges with over 30 air forces around the world.
“The whole idea behind it is to maximize the interchangeability of the pilots and the way we can interact between air forces”
“The whole idea behind it is to maximize the interchangeability of the pilots and the way we can interact between air forces,” said “Pinna”. “This is actually the best way to integrate – I am actually completely embedded in the squadron. Right now I work as the chief of scheduling, I’ve been working as chief of training for about a year, so there is virtually no difference between me and any other United States Air Force pilot that works in the squadron.”
The program helps provide a common ground for members to learn tactics and procedures from one another and pass lessons learned to their teams while also helping build a strong community through developing long-term personal and professional relationships.
“As we’ve moved away from the sole U.S. war execution to bring in all of our partners, the interoperability between a country that speaks English or a country that speaks whatever it might be, is always going to be a challenge and we all find our limitations and we can work around them,” said Maj. Kevin Sweeny, U.S. Air Force exchange pilot with the 322nd Royal Netherlands Air Force. “Maybe one day down the road we might be meeting up in country-X to defend country-Y and when you go and you go to war with someone and you’re both backing each other up and you’re putting your life on the line for each other, that makes a big impact on you and your relationship with that person.”
The benefits of working side-by-side with a partner nation air force on a day-to-day basis and understanding how the unit functions from its foundation increases war-fighting capabilities at all levels.
“You can read about capabilities, we can study their capabilities, they can study ours, but that only goes so far,” said Maj. Gen. Jon Kelk, Air National Guard assistant to the commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa. “Really it’s all about relationships, like any endeavor. We are like-minded, both our allies and partners, we both believe in the same thing, in democracy and freedoms, and so starting out with that value set and then applying that kind of training and then the outcomes and lessons learned that we can roll back into tactics, techniques and procedures advances us all.”