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JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Royal Australian Air Force Flight Lt. Mark Biele is an exchange pilot with JBER's 90th Fighter Squadron. Biele flies the squadron's F-22 Raptor and is the units assistant weapons officer. (U.S. Air Force photo/David Bedard)
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Australian airman pilots F-22s at JBER

Posted 8/9/2012   Updated 8/9/2012 Email story   Print story


by David Bedard
JBER Public Affairs

8/9/2012 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- A transient Kadena Air Base F-15 Eagle roared down the JBER airfield like a top-fuel funny car blasting down a quarter-mile track. An instant after lifting off the tarmac, the pilot turned the Eagle's nose nearly straight up, and the engines' afterburners catapulted the jet skyward in an almost NASA rocket fashion.

"That's fast," said Royal Australian Air Force Flight Lt. Mark Biele, 90th Fighter Squadron assistant weapons officer, a wide grin showing the pilot's satisfaction as he tracked the F-15's instantaneous disappearance into the sky. The jet Biele flies is even faster.

The Australian is one year into his three-year exchange with the 90th FS where he traded in his RAAF F/A-18 Hornet for the stealthy F-22 Raptor flown at JBER by the 90th and 525th fighter squadrons. For his part, Biele said he feels fortunate to have been selected for the exchange.

"There are far more American pilots on exchange in Australia than there are Australian pilots in America, so I'm very lucky to be the F-22 exchange pilot, which is significant given that we don't have that aircraft back home," Biele explained. "The position I fill here is to be included in a [Pacific Air Forces] squadron, given the Pacific is a common [area of operations] between the U.S. and Australia."

U.S. Air Force Maj. Christopher Lazidis, 90th FS director of weapons, echoed Biele's sentiments.

"The exchange is important to emphasize the level of trust and commitment between our two countries," Lazidis said. "It demonstrates how deep the partnership between the U.S. and Australia is - not just that we have an Australian F-22 pilot, but an Australian that will train, deploy and fight fully integrated within our squadron. The U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines have many reciprocal pilots on exchange in Australia flying the F/A-18."
Biele said to be competitive for the exchange, he was required to complete the Fighter Combat Instructor Course - equivalent to the USAF Weapons School - at RAAF Base Williamtown, New South Wales, Australia.

"The selection criteria for each exchange to the U.S. differs," Biele said. "For this specific exchange, the requirement was for a weapons officer, so that we could fill the position and be an instructor here at the squadron. To achieve that background, I had to complete that weapons course and then be available for that selection with a view to how my career might progress into fifth-generation [fighter] operations in Australia - namely F-35 [Lightning II]."

Back at home station, Biele said he flies the "classic" F/A-18, as opposed to the newer F/A-18 Super Hornet recently acquired by the RAAF. Despite the jet being older, Biele said RAAF classic Hornets are equipped with many Super Hornet advancements - such as the Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System - which have made the change to the F-22 cockpit a relatively painless one.

"The transition was much easier than a lot of people think," Biele recalled. "We're very blessed to have a lot of Americans involved in the Australian system at home, and the way we conduct business isn't too different from what I've experienced

"Once I was selected, it was a matter of logistically moving myself and my family to Alaska," the flight lieutenant continued. "From there, I was very easily able to go into the system and the TX [transition] course - which is a course offered for previous hours in a fast-jet type at Tyndall [Air Force Base], Fla. It was just like training I had done before, just in the world's greatest aircraft."

Biele said he was treated like any U.S. Air Force F-15 or F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot making the transition to the Raptor.

"The academics and everything else there were conducted as if I was a Track 1 TX student just like my American peers, who were in the course with me," he said. "Because of how similarly we operate, the transition was relatively seamless."

Biele said he is the second RAAF F-22 exchange pilot, and he was impressed by the capabilities of the Raptor.

"One of the first things that was very evident to me is that they consulted widely with people, and they picked the best parts of the best aircraft to date," he said. "If you wanted to do something, it's almost obvious how you would go about doing it. It's built to be fighter-pilot friendly.

"A few key areas the F-22 brings to the game are stealth and sensor fusion," Biele said of the Raptor's capability to rapidly gather information from the fighter's integrated avionics and show them on a single display. "Combining those two in a fighter-sized aircraft makes it a generational leap beyond other aircraft. That is what the F-22 is all about and what I'm exposed to everyday."

Growing up in Mount Barker, South Australia, Biele said he often dreamed of achieving supersonic speeds and pulling g-force turns normally considered beyond the limits of the human body.

"I always was interested in the flying side of things and had an interest in the military as well," he said. "The [Royal Australian] Air Force was obviously the answer to both of these interests."

To achieve his goals, Biele said he attended the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, where he completed a shortened three-year degree designed to get him into pilot training and the fighter cockpit sooner than a traditional degree. He has been flying for 11 years.

"He is one of those pilots that you trust to get the job done," Lazidis said of Biele. "He has struck me as a very detail-oriented fighter pilot, which is a huge asset in this business. He has taken to the F-22 very well.

"After a short time in the plane, he is already progressing into instructor roles," the major continued. "Using his past experience in the F/A-18, he has adapted well to the change in aircraft and quickly learned both the similarities and the differences."
Biele said he has adapted equally well to the subarctic conditions he encounters in Southcentral Alaska.

"Alaska is on the opposite side of the world, but it isn't too different from Australia in a lot of ways - climate aside, which makes this an exciting and rewarding posting. Alaskans and Americans are very similar culturally to how we are in Australia."
Despite never seeing a single flake of snow before his exchange, Biele said he embraced Alaska winters by picking up snowboarding and cross-country skiing with his wife, Kristen.

"We think that Alaska is a great fit for Australians," he elaborated. "We love the outdoors. Summer and winter here, we have had no trouble making the most of those opportunities. Alaska was a good choice for this assignment."

Between short deployments and thundering around the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex in his F-22, Biele holds station at the 90th FS operations desk, where American pilots seem to genuinely enjoy the company of the gregarious Australian.

"He is probably one of the most humble and approachable guys in the squadron," Lazidis said. "Always good for a laugh and ready to hang out with the bunch.

"His wife has fit in great as well," the major continued. "The wives of the squadron have instantly taken to her, and they make a strong team and set the example for the squadron."
Biele said he occasionally forgets he is a foreigner among his fellow pilots and airmen.
"Sometimes I have to remind myself to a degree that I'm not exactly like the others, because it has been such an easy fit," he said. "Both the pilots and the maintainers have made me feel so welcome. Being able to add a little Australian flavor to the mix hopefully makes me a welcome addition to the squadron."

Biele said following the end of his tour at JBER, two more years experience of operating throughout the Pacific Theater and of mentoring fresh Raptor pilots will help him be an asset to the RAAF.

"Going home, I'll be a reasonably senior member of the Australian squadrons," he said.
"And I think that exposure both to how the Pacific operates on a larger scale, and the instructional benefits I've had here with the F-22 junior pilots will pay great dividends."

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