By Luiza Ilie
FETESTI, Romania (Reuters) – Red is a Romanian fighter pilot with hundreds of flight hours and countless air policing missions on the NATO state’s now retired fleet of MIG21 LanceR jets who will be flying Lockheed Martin F-16 planes as early as December.
On Monday, he and six other Romanian pilots became the first trainees at a NATO military alliance-backed regional F-16 training hub which will also be available to all allies and partners, including Ukraine during its war with Russia.
“I am a little nervous but I expect the nerves to be constructive,” said the 32-year-old pilot, who only identified by his pilot call sign Red, of the transition to flying F-16s.
“At the end of the day it is a fighter jet and we have been flying fighter jets.”
Romania shares a 650-km (400 mile) border with Ukraine, and has seen the conflict approach its borders as Moscow has repeatedly attacked Ukrainian ports across the River Danube.
Last year it agreed to buy 32 second-hand F-16 fighter jets – made by Lockheed Martin Corp LMT.N – from Norway, to add to 17 acquired from Portugal since 2016.
It also plans to spend $6.5 billion to buy 32 latest-generation F-35 fighter planes after 2030.
The European F-16 training centre (EFTC) is hosted at a Romanian military air base near the southeastern town of Fetesti and is using F-16 jets provided by the Netherlands with training support from Lockheed Martin and its contractors.
The hub could start training Ukrainian pilots as early as next year, Dutch Colonel Olivier Bok said.
“The intent is to also train Ukrainian pilots,” Bok said, adding the timeline had yet to be agreed with Romanian officials, “but I would say at the beginning of next year.”
In August, the United States approved sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine from Denmark and the Netherlands to defend against Russian invaders as soon as pilot training was completed. Ukraine has actively sought the U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets to help it counter Russian air superiority.
“I really see the need for them to get the F-16s,” Bok said.
While some Ukrainian pilots were already being trained in Denmark and the U.S., Bok said Romania was “closer to home and more or less the same scene.”
Asked when the Netherlands would be sending F-16s to Ukraine, Dutch Defence Minister Kajsa Ollongren, who was present at the hub’s launch, said it depended on preparations on the Ukrainian side.
“They have to have trained pilots, they have to have maintenance personnel, they have to have the infrastructure in place and we also have to coordinate with our partner and with the U.S. because it is an American capability.”
(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)