TUCSON, Ariz. -- While the island nation of Japan continues to rebuild in the wake of the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, its airmen look to reconstitute the country's air defenses - learning to fly the F-16 Fighting Falcon with the Arizona Air National Guard.
The disaster left the Japan Air Self-Defense Force short on their jet of choice, the F-2 Fighter; a multirole platform similar to the F-16. Laying the groundwork for the possible purchase of next-generation aircraft, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Japan has turned to the 162nd Fighter Wing at Tucson International Airport for F-16 pilot training as a precursor to the radar-evading fighter currently in production.
"They're cool," said JASDF 1st Lt. Kazuhiro Ota of the F-16. "Not many of our pilots have flown this type of fighter. It's a real privilege for us."
Ota, from Warabi, located in central Japan, is one of three Japanese students currently in the basic qualification here. Although there are no F-16s in the Japanese inventory, training in Tucson offers opportunities they would generally not receive in their native country.
Enticed by exceptional flying weather and vast over-land ranges in Southern Arizona, Japan's pilots have made the trek to join pilots from Poland, Norway, Singapore, Denmark, and the Netherlands at the Air Guard's international F-16 school house.
"We get more advanced training here and more flight experience," said 1st Lt. Nobuyuki Ariga from Osaka.
Ariga praised his American instructors for their knowledge, experience, flight and people skills.
Instructors at the 162nd average more than 2,400 flying hours in the F-16, and as a unit, the wing has graduated more than 2,000 Viper pilots during its 23 years in international military training.
"They're good. Our instructors show much respect, and they're very helpful," he said.
The sentiment is clear on both sides, however.
"Honor, respect, and military bearing are very evident in the Japanese students," said Maj. David Torres, an instructor pilot and the flight commander in charge of their training. "All three students show a sincere desire to learn and improve. They're dedicated, and their nation is very involved in all aspects of their training."
Japanese dignitaries visited the Tucson Air Guard base in February to see first-hand the classrooms, syllabus, and living arrangements for their student pilots.
"This has been a very positive experience for both countries," said Tech. Sgt. Pamela McNair-Foust, a training technician with the International Military Student Office here. "It's refreshing to see a country so involved with students on a personal level."
The JASDF Head of Personnel Planning Division, Col. Takashi Sugimura, was among the leaders who visited. "They went through the syllabus line-by-line at that time before the final approval was given," said McNair-Foust.
An additional Japanese student is expected to arrive in Tucson later this fall, about the same time the current students are set to complete the course. All three current students expressed the hope of returning someday to work alongside their American counterparts.
"The U.S. pilots have a lot of experience," said 1st Lt. Keisuke Ueda, from Hiroshima. "They know real combat."
The U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress earlier this year of a possible foreign military sale to Japan for an initial four F-35A Joint Strike Fighter Conventional Take-Off and Landing aircraft with an option for an additional 38 aircraft. A delivery schedule is yet to be determined.
Regardless of which jets they will fly, Japan's pilots are forging relationships with their American hosts and setting the precedence for future joint endeavors.
"We're grateful for the opportunity to train here. We're learning the American way to fly jets. This is practice for us to someday fight in a joint environment with our allies," said Ota.