By Senior Airman Deana Heitzman, 35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published May 05, 2016
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- Gazing above, a child is fixated on the effortless movements of birds soaring through the endless blue sky. His desire to be close to the clouds forecasted a lifestyle of piloting one of the Air Forces greatest war machines--the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Capt. Nicolas DeWulf, an F-16 fighter pilot with the 13th Fighter Squadron, always aspired to take to the skies, but when he witnessed the U.S. Air Force Thunderbird demonstration team at his first airshow, he instantly locked his targets on becoming a military fighter pilot.
During his teenage years, DeWulf pursued his private pilot's license, bringing his goal closer until he encountered a set-back. To his knowledge, the only way to obtain a pilot's position was to commission through the Air Force Academy or attend a college with an Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps. Unfortunately, his college didn't have an AFROTC.
Settling on a career as a commercial airline pilot, DeWulf's military goals were grim--until he walked into an Air Force recruiter's office during his junior year of college and learned there was still another option to achieve his dream. He discovered Officer Training School, which commissions candidates whom have already received a bachelor's degree. DeWulf took this route with one condition--to have a guaranteed flight path.
Out of a 3,000 applicant pool, DeWulf was one of 10 Air Force officer pilot candidates who graduated OTS. His journey took him to Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, where he began his pilot training. After completing phase one within the top 10 percent, he and the other prestige pilot candidates proceeded to the fighter and bomber track. Because of DeWulfs hard work and dedication he was declared the top in his class, ultimately landing him the only fighter pilot position available for that class.
"There were so many opportunities where something could have gone wrong," DeWulf reminisced. "My journey is something I am extremely grateful for and do not take for granted."
Currently, DeWulf performs the 35th Fighter Wing's primary mission: Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses. This mission involves removing and mitigating the enemy's ability to target friendly aircraft with surface to air missiles, air defense artillery and enemy aircraft.
"From a flying perspective, SEAD is 'First in, Last out,'" explained DeWulf. "If we can, we will avoid the threat, but if it cannot be avoided for mission success, we maneuver our aircraft and use its sensors to locate the threats. We then can use High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles [HARM] or other air to ground munitions with the goal of suppressing and in some cases, destroying the threats. This gives us and allied aircraft the highest percentages for success by mitigating risk."
While the 35th FW claims the responsibility of accomplishing the SEAD mission, it contributes to the overall projection of airpower throughout the Pacific Theater. Working alongside other bases, Misawa dedicates itself to provide agile combat support, while increasing the United States' partnership between international allies. In efforts to achieve this goal, mission capabilities are tested through vigorous training sorties preparing the pilots to be ready to fight tonight.
Pilots typically endure 12 to 16 hour work days, balancing flight planning, mission briefs, flights, debriefs, and additional duties. When a pilot is expected to fly a certain mission, preparation usually begins at least a day before.
Because DeWulf is a four-ship flight lead, he is responsible for developing a strict mission plan, brief and debrief to facilitate safe and effective learning. Not only is he in charge of developing this plan for the members of his formation, but for any supporting aircraft.
DeWulf's mission brief and game plan paves the way for how his wingmen are expected to perform during the duration of the flight.
"A typical air-to-air phase mission is 50 minutes, depending on fuel, and performing a typical SEAD mission or air-to-ground mission is around 90 minutes," said DeWulf. "These missions would require at least four hours of mission planning the day before."
On the night before flying, a strict requirement for pilots is crew rest, where pilots have a mandatory 12-hour non-duty period. This grants pilots the opportunity to receive adequate, uninterrupted rest before performing in-flight procedures safely and effectively.
Prior to each flight, DeWulf says he draws motivation by reflecting on the opportunity he has been given to defend our nation and its values.
"Sitting at the end of the runway ready for takeoff, to look left and right knowing all of the blood, sweat, and tears from everyone in maintenance, weapons, ammo and aircrew flight equipment to make this flight possible gets me motivated to fly, fight and win," DeWulf said.
Two hours and 40 minutes prior to takeoff, pilots enter their flight brief. This brief covers all aspects of the flight to include training rules and regulations, objectives, aircraft coordination and contracts ensuring safe operations during the mission. It also covers contingencies if certain systems are down or if weather does not allow reasonable training.
"After this brief, every pilot should know their role, how to safety execute the mission, and what to do if it does not go according to plan," explained DeWulf. "If my aircraft breaks and I am unable to take off, this ensures the flight will still be able perform and ultimately succeed."
Once released from the brief, gear is grabbed and equipment donned, and pilots step to their jet an hour before takeoff. This allows pilots and crew chiefs to ensure the jet has no mechanical or electrical issues and to load that day's mission into the avionics and systems of the f-16.
Once ready for taxiing, pilots speak with base operations to ensure no mission related information has changed before takeoff. Although every squadron is different, the 13th FS survives their legacy and heritage by displaying their squadron symbol--a panther claw--and speaking their motto--"cave putorium" or beware the weasel--moments before takeoff.
"There is never a dull moment when I am flying the F-16," DeWulf says while smiling. "In my opinion, the F-16 is the best and most versatile plane capable of accomplishing many different roles. There is always something to learn, both in the air and back on the ground, building new tactics."
The primary mission of the F-16s at Misawa is SEAD, although DeWulf describes the F-16 as a renaissance aircraft, meaning the pilots here are experts in many different mission sets, which are upheld by the capabilities of the F-16.
After each flight, pilots convene for debrief. Depending on how the flight went, the brief could last as long as four hours with discussions about what went right and wrong. Using visuals captured during their flight, pilots have the ability to recreate the mission and determine how to best improve their game plan.
"Every day I have to pinch myself to realize where I am and the amazing opportunity I have to fly F-16s in Japan," DeWulf said. "Remembering my memories as a child and how I loved to see aircraft perform loops and barrel rolls, then reflecting on my life now and directly seeing 2,000 pound bombs being unloaded on a target, while accomplishing an objective is a rewarding feeling."
With nation-wide attention shifting to the Pacific region, DeWulf and other pilots executing the 35th FW's mission are critical to the overall increase of combat capabilities, while continuing to contribute to air, space and cyberspace dominance alongside our allies.
"Being able to make a difference and protect lives while supporting our allies in the Pacific adds more meaning and value to the reality of my job and mission."