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For RAF pilot the road to the Netherlands goes through Tucson

Royal Air Force Flt. Lt. Jean-Claude Guertin prepares for an F-16 training mission at the Arizona Air National Guard’s 162nd Fighter Wing in Tucson. Guertin, a former Tornado F3 pilot, completed F-16 transition training here in order to serve as an exchange pilot at Leeuwarden Air Base in the Netherlands. (U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Gabe Johnson)

Royal Air Force Flt. Lt. Jean-Claude Guertin prepares for an F-16 training mission at the Arizona Air National Guard’s 162nd Fighter Wing in Tucson. Guertin, a former Tornado F3 pilot, completed F-16 transition training here in order to serve as an exchange pilot at Leeuwarden Air Base in the Netherlands. (U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Gabe Johnson)

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Royal Air Force fighter pilots qualified on the F-16 are few and far between but surely exist as a result of exchange programs with the United States and other partner nation air forces. This month the 162nd Fighter Wing here is adding one more to the short list.

RAF Flt. Lt. Jean-Claude Guertin, an experienced Tornado F3 pilot, winds down nearly five months of transition training to fly a jet that few of his countrymen have flown. He intends to use his new skills during a three-year exchange tour with the Royal Netherlands Air Force.

It's an assignment long in the works for Guertin. Before arriving in Tucson he spent 15 months learning the Dutch language.

At Tucson International Airport he's taken on ground school, assorted simulator rides and a busy flying schedule of two-to-three sorties per week; all along side Dutch and U.S. pilots at the 148th Fighter Squadron, the designated Dutch F-16 training unit in the United States.

"There are a few new things to me," said Lieutenant Guertin. "I lose a navigator in the back seat, there's one less engine and I've had to bring up my air-to-ground skills."

Guertin is a veteran of Operations Southern Watch and Iraqi Freedom and most recently he's put his air-to-air expertise to use at RAF Leuchars, Scotland, for the quick reaction alert mission.

The Tornados he's accustomed to, air-to-air platforms, were retired from the RAF in March in exchange for the multi-role Eurofighter Typhoon. He said most former RAF Tornado pilots are now learning the additional ground attack role.

"This is good preparation for me to eventually go back to the Typhoon later on," he said.

As for the F-16, the lieutenant was complimentary.

"It's been a childhood dream to fly the F-16. I remember the movie Iron Eagle as a kid. We don't have the F-16 in the RAF inventory so this is a unique opportunity," said Guertin. "It's a joy to fly. The F-16 lives up to the hype even though it's 25 years old. I think what it has going for it is that it's a fully matured weapon system; it's capable and has proven itself in both air-to-air and air-to-ground roles."

According to Guertin, training in Arizona afforded many benefits apart from the vast military training ranges and perfect flying weather.

"The American input is good to see," he said. "Things are very similar to how we do things in the UK. Everything is well standardized and the level of training is very good."

Lt. Col. Mike Neighbors, an instructor pilot at the Arizona Air Guard unit, said Guertin is a first for the international wing.

"We've trained with more than two dozen different partner nations, but we've never had a pilot from the UK complete a course here," said Colonel Neighbors. "We pride ourselves on having a positive impact on international relations, but it's usually between us and another country. This is really a nation-to-nation, to-nation success story."

The 148th, in addition to training new pilots, hosts operational Dutch pilots on a regular basis who return to Tucson for two weeks at a time to fly in Arizona's optimal conditions. Guertin may return to Tucson at least one or two more times, said Neighbors.

"It's good to face new challenges," said Guertin. "I never thought I'd learn Dutch. Intellectually, it's been quite stimulating. I'm looking forward to my tour in the Netherlands; working with their air force, the different culture and pace of life."

Since 1989, the 162nd has trained with virtually every nation that flies the F-16. In addition to the Netherlands, the wing currently trains with pilots from Singapore, Norway, Belgium, Chile, Morocco, and the Republic of Korea.