NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Lockheed Martin expects to close a contract with Romania to open up its first F-16 flight training center in Europe, which could eventually train pilots from Ukraine.
The planned European Flight Training Center would be the U.S. company’s first in the continent, and in the future could expand to teach pilots from nations other than Romania, OJ Sanchez, Lockheed’s integrated fighter group vice president and general manager, told Defense News in a Sept. 13 interview.
The Romanians “need to train their pilots, and there was no good place to do that, as well as their maintainers,” he said.
Lockheed announced late last month that it had signed a letter of intent with Romania and the Netherlands to establish the European F-16 Training Center. Sanchez said the company is confident its contract with Romania will be signed by the end of the year.
As part of this arrangement, the Netherlands will loan F-16s to Romania for training. Sanchez said the number of aircraft is still being negotiated as part of the larger contract.
Romania also struck a deal with Norway in November to buy 32 used F-16s, which would allow Romania to expand its fledgling F-16 fleet and retire the last of its outdated Soviet-era MiG-21 fighters.
At first, this training center will focus on teaching Romanian pilots to fly F-16s, Sanchez said. But over time, Lockheed hopes more nations could start sending their airmen there — including Ukraine.
“The European Flight Training Center may be a good option for countries like Ukraine, or others who may need that support as they build out their air force needs,” Sanchez said.
Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the embattled nation repeatedly asked NATO nations for modern F-16 fighters to bolster and modernize its air force. Last month, the Netherlands and Denmark announced plans to provide Ukraine with its first F-16s, and the U.S. will help teach Ukrainian pilots to fly them.
Ukraine expects to continue modernizing its air force in years to come, and will need more venues where its pilots can learn to fly western fourth-generation jets. Lockheed sees this Romanian training center as one potential option for Ukraine.
Sanchez declined to offer details such as how many pilots this training center might be able to train annually, saying that information is not ready to be released. He said it’s still too soon to say how soon the training center might start training the first Romanian pilots, but that Lockheed hopes to move quickly after the contract is signed.
But Lockheed plans for the Romanian training center’s curriculum and approach to be largely similar to the Air Force’s international training units. The Air National Guard’s 162nd Wing in Arizona, for example, will start training some Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s in October. The director of the U.S. Air National Guard predicted at AFA that some Ukrainian pilots could be finished within three months, depending on their skills and experience.
The flight training center in Romania will start with English language training, Sanchez said, since that is “the international language of flying.”
International F-16 training also typically involves basic flight training academics, possibly including flights in a smaller plane like a Cessna to get the students some flight time, he said. After that, pilots have six to 12 months of basic flying in a jet, depending on their level of experience, before they get to specialized flight training in their fighter.
Lockheed Martin’s goal is to have student pilots graduate from this Romanian training center with basic proficiency on an F-16 necessary to join a squadron and be an effective wingman, Sanchez said.
Those pilots would still need further training and development to grow and learn advanced maneuvers after graduation, but Sanchez said that more in-depth training would happen elsewhere.
Lockheed will take the lead on organizing this flight training center, including bringing together partners from European and U.S. companies to conduct flight and simulation training, Sanchez said. The company expects to have several former U.S. airmen in its ranks serve as flight instructors at the training center in Romania.
This will be the first F-16 flight training center Lockheed Martin has set up in Europe, but the company has launched other training centers elsewhere. The Romanian training center will focus entirely on F-16s, but Sanchez left the door open to starting additional centers that could teach pilots to fly other jets such as the F-35.
“Training is always a critical need and enabler,” Sanchez said.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.