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Airmen 1st Class Vanessa Hermosillo and Donald Morell adjust part of Polish air force Col. Wladyslaw Lesnikowski's flight suit Monday during the first day of a visit to Aviano Air Base, Italy. Aviano is showing more than a dozen officers from Poland, which is buying 48 F-16 jets, how the Air Force operates and maintains its fleet.

Airmen 1st Class Vanessa Hermosillo and Donald Morell adjust part of Polish air force Col. Wladyslaw Lesnikowski's flight suit Monday during the first day of a visit to Aviano Air Base, Italy. Aviano is showing more than a dozen officers from Poland, which is buying 48 F-16 jets, how the Air Force operates and maintains its fleet. (Kent Harris / S&S)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — If all goes as scheduled, F-16s will be flying regularly in the skies over Poland in a few years.

And they won’t have Americans in them.

Currently, though, one of the closest places members of the Polish air force can see the jets — and the personnel, material and systems that keep them airborne — is at Aviano.

It takes hundreds of Americans doing their jobs to get one of the aircraft off the ground. That’s the kind of effort the visitors are most interested in seeing.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity for our guys,” said 2nd Lt. Jeff Fogle, executive officer for the 31st Maintenance Group. “The Polish air force is building the next generation of its air force and we have an opportunity to play a small role in that.”

Aviano had no role in the sale of 48 F-16s to Poland for a reported $3.5 billion. And Lt. Col. Steven Jarvis, the Air Force’s country director for Poland, cringed when he heard the word “training” mentioned Monday.

He said the visit — one of dozens planned at various bases in Europe and the States — was more to show the Poles how the Air Force operates at a base that flies F-16s. It is service-to-service cooperation at its best, he said.

“I think it’s a testimony to how close we want to work together,” Jarvis said.

Most of those visiting this week are higher-level officers who will be spending more time putting together Polish programs and policies than piloting the planes.

“I’m too old,” said Col. Wladyslaw Lesnikowski, smiling. The team leader, who has spent the better part of two decades piloting aircraft such as the SU-22 and various MiG models, is to get his first ride in an F-16 this week.

Tadeusz Pieciukiewicz, a retired colonel now working in the country’s defense department, said the majority of pilots that Poland trains will be younger officers.

“It’s a long-term investment for us,” he said, adding that those trained would, it is hoped, be flying the planes for decades.

As for the planes, they’ll be a newer version — with an array of the latest technology — than those that call Aviano home. The jets are to start arriving in late 2006.

Col. Adam Swierkocz, who commands the Polish air base in Lask, has been on an F-16 before — thanks to the Danish air force. Asked to compare that ride to piloting the SU-22, he laughed.

“I forgot. It was about six years ago. Ask me in two days,” he said.

While Lesnikowski and Swierkocz visited the 510th Fighter Squadron to be briefed on how the squadron is structured and functions, other members of the Polish delegation took a look at maintenance and operations.

A visit to the maintenance facilities at Aviano might be eye-opening for those used to a different system.

“They have officers doing what we have airmen doing,” Fogle said.

Capt. Phil Lancaster, a 510th pilot escorting one of the groups of Polish visitors, said a lot of the things the air forces do appear to be similar. But there are quite a few differences, too.

“They’re not afraid to ask questions,” Lancaster said. “But they’re teaching us, too.”

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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