Dave Eade toughs it out on a recent business trip
There are disadvantages and advantages in working for an American company. Yes, they are ruthless when it comes to targets, holidays and hire-and-fire, but a visit to corporate HQ, however rare, has its bonuses. Our corporate HQ is situated in Phoenix, Arizona and the "order" to attend a conference in July 2000 and again in January 2001 meant that for the cost of one days holiday and a days car rental, I got to Luke AFB (twice) and Pima Air Museum expenses paid!
Many readers will, I am sure, have visited Luke on the tours frequently leaping the pond from the UK, but let me tell you something until you have done it "Business Class" courtesy of British Airways and one of their 747-400s you havent lived.
The BA flight leaves Gatwick at about 11:00 and arrives Phoenix at 15:00 some ten flying hours, three hearty meals, choice of 18 channels personal TV and as much alcohol as you can consume, later. Its an interesting flight, passing over Scotland, the ice-cap, Newfoundland, Hudson Bay, Great Lakes, Rockies and the Arizona desert. My January 2001 flight showed just how far South the US winter has reached this year, with snow laying just 1 hour North of Phoenixs predicted 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
An airfield is an airfield so this yarn will concentrate on the unusual about the visit to Luke. Many will be aware that this base trains all the USAF pilots who fly the F16 (a kind of OCU) and is home for the 56 FW (tail code - LF) and is equipped with F16A, B, C and D variants. The C and D versions predominate, but one squadron (21st FS r/w) of F16As and Bs all new-builds, also call this home. The task assigned to the 21st, is the training of Taiwanese F16 crews under a three-year contract, which included the purchase of this aircraft. The base is also home to the 302nd FS of AFRC (the Sun Devils) with a further 18 or so F16s.
Probably comparable in acreage to Lakenheath, Luke is situated about 20 miles west of Phoenix on West Camelback Road and is unusual in having two parallel runways 03/21L & R, which are both in use at any one time. Very little in the way of hangars can be seen but vast pans exist which are home, under the recently constructed sunshades, to some 170 (yes one hundred and seventy) F16s.
It is unfortunate that geography and real estate conspire with the sun to give photographers a hard time at Luke. Summer time haze will prevent decent photography of aircraft on the ground at all sites except early and late in the day. Day-time temperatures in excess of 100 degrees F tend to sap both the strength and enthusiasm of the European spotter. Out of summertime though (say January), with temperatures a cool 60-70 degrees F, haze is not a problem although distance from the pans can be. I was unable to read off any airframes on the pans.
Activity is usually from runways 03L and R. Take-offs are best observed from Alsup Road or the Dirt Track but the latter looks towards the sun early in the day (all day in summer). Tail numbers of F16s landing are easily read off from here with a small pair of binoculars (x8) although those airborne may prove a bit fast and high to all but the best. Landings are best seen from the Dirt Track or West Northern Avenue (where last checks and taxiing can be observed again with a pair of x8s). It is difficult to log and impossible to photograph (300mm) at Dirt Track when aircraft land on 03L (furthest away).
From outside the base the above are the predominant photo sites although I understand that base tours (of one squadron only, probably) are available although I have not yet been successful in this area. The 56 FW web-site enables the surfer to get to a calendar of base events, which lists days on which public coach tours are also available. Although listed as a tour day, enquiries for the day of my visit drew a blank, however, and may include the Fire Station, toddlers group and school.
The overriding memories that I have of Luke AFB are both the number of airframes seen and the volume of traffic. Training flights take place over the Barry Goldwater range to the North and the intensity of training is such that a gap of five minutes between take-offs would be seen as a long pause. At the same time, 2/4-ship flights having been airborne for 30-45 minutes are returning for landing at the same rate. As an exercise, your scribe counted the number of F16s taxiing to or from the pans in one sweep of the binoculars and managed 27 without counting any ON the pans or runways. It becomes a decision whether to photograph or number-crunch if one is alone.
In a period from 10:30 to 15:00 I logged over 50 different F16s, all at landing, although by the end of the session many were getting airborne for the second time of the day. Some of the crowded pans didnt move an aircraft in this time its just overwhelming!
Visitors? well, my prize was logging the two AT38s from 12 OG but which I failed to photograph wrong choice! It appears that this is F16 land and not a lot else.
Not a lot else? Well, that depends on your interests. Occasionally you get a reminder of just how far from the UK you are. Every small bird (feathered) that you see is a mass of colour, the sky is constantly being scanned by soaring eagles (feathered not F15) and at Dirt Track you can have at least a pair of Herons (non-DH) for company some ten yards away.
The Phoenix area has lots to satisfy the spotter other than Luke. The nearby Sky Harbor Airport is home to the Arizona ANG with their KC135s - the 'Copperheads'. Army Air Units of UH-1, OH-58 and UH-60 are close by at Papago AAF and Phoenix itself has at least two air museums at the nearby local airport of Falcon Field the home of B17 "Sentimental Journey".
Yes the trip of a life-time with a total cost of, wait for it, £6,000 for the air fare, £400 for three nights in the Hilton Hotel and a measly £35 for a days car rental to get to Luke.
My thanks go out to John Meneely, en ex-pat Irish guy living around Phoenix who I met via Mil-Spotters, who showed me the delights of Luke for the first time and whose map I enclose showing the photo spots. I suppose I should thank my employers as well for ..naaaaaaah!
For more details on Luke and the 56 FW check out the superb 'Sharpshooter' website here.