MIRGOROD AIR BASE, Ukraine (July 19, 2011) – Capt. Frank Prokop, an Alabama Air National Guard F-16C pilot, straps into the jet for the afternoon mission. Though wearing a US Air Force flight suit, the Russian made helmet and life support equipment he was donning is designed for the SU-27 fighter that he was about to fly.
During SAFE SKIES 2011, a joint US, Ukraine and Polish event where Air National Guard pilots fly engagements with Ukrainian SU-27, Mig-29s and Polish F-16s on air sovereignty operations in preparation for the 2012 Olympics and 2012 EUROCup and 2014 Winter Games in Europe. Many U.S. and Ukrainian pilots have the opportunity to fly in the other countries aircraft. This unique program allows pilots to further their integration training through hands-on experience. It also helps them understand the different techniques used during an intercept mission based on the capabilities of the aircraft.
“There is no better way to understand the limitations and capabilities of an aircraft than by strapping in and taking it out for a mission,” said Capt. Frank Prokop. “When you collaborate on a mission as complicated as air sovereignty, understanding the tools you have to work with is very important. “
When asked to compare the flight characteristics of the Ukraine fighter, Prokop said it was very smooth; the handling was very different from the F-16C, but incredibly responsive. “You can tell the Ukrainian maintenance teams put a lot of care into these aircraft.”
When the U.S. pilots conduct training missions stateside, they typically simulate fighting against Su-27s and MiG-29s because their capabilities are comparable. “I was honored to be able to fly with the Ukraine pilot, and to better understand the true capabilities of this advanced fighter,” said Prokop.
When Prokrop met his Ukrainian counterpart, there was a language barrier in that neither pilot spoke the other’s language very clearly, but once they were in the jet they spoke the common language of air superiority. “Your control, my control,” was all that was said by Ukraine Col. Oleh Ges, the Mirgorod Base Commander, who flew with Prokop. As Ges made a gesture with the stick, Prokop knew it was his turn to fly and what maneuvers they needed to perform.
As Propkop and Ges took off in the SU-27, across the ramp Lt. Col. Kirk Toomey, a California Air National Guard F-16C/D pilot, strapped into his jet with Lt. Col. Dmytro Fisher in the back seat. Fisher is an Su-27 pilot assigned here.
“The feeling of the sky is the same with our fighter and theirs,” Dmytro said through a translator. “I think the F-16 is a little less powerful, but more maneuverable. It was such an honor to fly with Col. Toomey and the adrenaline is still pumping; it was an experience of a lifetime.”
The pilot exchange serves another very valuable purpose: it creates a very special bond between the pilots, especially the ones who flew together for the orientation rides. Shared experiences are what make this event different from most others performed by these Air National Guard members. Collaboration is much more effective if there is a common sense of belonging.