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The 119th Fighter Wing established a new flight safety record yesterday. The wing has now flown more than 60,000 hours of accident-free F-16 fighter hours without the loss of an aircraft or pilot. That 60,000 plus hours occurred over a 13-year period going back to January 1990 and including some 38,729 flights by pilots from the North Dakota Air National Guard.
No other Air National Guard fighter unit has reached this level of continuous flight safety in an inherently risky business. Fighter aircraft are flown aggressively, are highly maneuverable, well armed and designed to intercept and defeat airborne threats. One active duty F-16 Air Force squadron, based in Idaho, has surpassed 70,000 hours of accident free F-16 fighter time.
"The Happy Hooligans have an unparalleled safety record, when you examine the facts," said Maj. Gen. Michael Haugen, North Dakota Adjutant General and a former 119th Fighter Wing commander. "We've now flown beyond 60,000 hours in F-16s, we flew more than 51,000 hours in F-4 Phantom fighters, and before that, another 21,000 hours in F-101 Voodoo fighters."
Yesterday's training flight was a two-versus-two tactical intercept mission that took place in established military operating airspace over central North Dakota. A KC-135 aerial refueling tanker from the 319th Air Refueling Wing, Grand Forks Air Force Base, refueled "Twiz" flight and "Pyro" flight. Yesterday's flight also included one of three F-16s fighters that were scrambled from our alert detachment at Langley Air Force Base, Va., on Sept. 11, 2001 to secure the skies over Washington D.C. during the coordinated terrorist attacks against the United States.
119th Fighter Wing Commander, Col. Richard Utecht, noted the rapid increase in flying since Sept. 11, 2001 accelerated the need for extra attention to safe operations and increased the rate of flying nearly 40-percent. "We achieved our first 50,000 hours in an 11-year stretch. The next 10,000 hours occurred just short of two years," Utecht said.
Utecht said more than one-third of the last 10,000 F-16 flying hours were devoted to providing combat air patrols at several locations within the continental United States. That does not include a classified number of active air defense scrambles the 119th Fighter Wing has carried out to protect U.S. airspace since 9/11/01.
The 119th Fighter Wing achieved 40,000 hours of accident-free flying in the F-16 on Nov. 3, 1998. The 50,000-hour mark was surpassed May 17, 2001, as the unit was preparing to deploy for an extended counterdrug deployment to the island of Curacao, Netherlands Antilles.
"When I started flying fighter aircraft as a young lieutenant, we had just experienced our last mishap," Haugen said.
The last time a North Dakota Air National Guard fighter aircraft was destroyed occurred in March 1973, when two F-101 fighters collided during a radar intercept training flight. All four crewmembers survived that mishap. One fighter was able to return to Hector Airport in Fargo, while the second aircraft crashed mission in the vicinity of Fessenden, North Dakota.
"The success of this organization is founded on a culture that demands the highest levels of performance," Utecht said. "We start each day with a focus on accomplishing our mission in a safe manner, whatever the task might be. We lose effectiveness and combat capability if shortcuts are taken or if safety is compromised."
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