Initial training cadre pilots at the US Air Force's 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin AFB, Florida, have started converting over to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. Previously, only two test pilots, US Marine Corps Maj Joseph Bachmann and USAF Lt Col Eric Smith, were flying at the sea-side base.
The first pilot to be "checked out" on the F-35 is USMC Col Arthur Tomassetti, vice commander of the 33rd FW. Tomassetti was one of the original test pilots for the X-35B concept demonstrator in 2000. "The X-35 was a prototype with a very basic cockpit and avionics. The F-35 is a lot more sophisticated," he says. "Family resemblance in the airplanes is most definitely there and they share excellent basic flying qualities. But that is about where the similarities end."
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Tomassetti started his academics to fly the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) at Eglin but then continued training at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, where the F-35B and F-35C are being put through their paces.
Initially, Tomassetti underwent a Boeing F/A-18 Hornet refresher course before starting to fly the F-35. Tomasetti flew his check ride in aircraft BF-4, a short take-off vertical landing (STOVL) variant, in March after which he completed four test flights in aircraft CF-3, which is a carrier model.
With the US Naval Air Systems Command giving the go ahead for the F-35B to start local area flights, Bachmann started flying the STOVL jet on 22 May. Bachmann flew again on 23 May to complete the aircraft's functional check flight. Tomassetti is scheduled for his first F-35B local sortie later in the day, but that is contingent upon the weather and aircraft availability.
Another pilot, USAF Lt Col Lee Kloos, commander of the 58th Fighter Squadron, is the first non-test pilot to start his transition over to the stealthy fifth-generation machine. Kloos, a former 2000 hour F-16 pilot and Weapons School graduate, has already completed four out of six cadre checkout flights needed to qualify him to fly the F-35A.
Kloos had actually started his F-35 academics and simulator training last October. The training ran through January and culminated in engine runs and taxi trials. But because the military flight release for the F-35 was delayed, he had not had an opportunity to fly the stealthy new jet until 8 May. That was when the USAF Aeronautical Systems Center amended the F-35A's flight release to allow non-test pilots to fly the aircraft.
"The power was pretty nice, its got a pretty big engine in it," Kloos says. The F-35 feels "stiffer" than an F-16 and rumbles more under G-loading or at higher angles of attack. "For how big the airplane is in weight and overall size compared to an F-16, I thought it was very well balanced, powerful, and very easy to fly," he says.
Kloos says that he is pleased with the aircraft's performance thus far given the system's immaturity. No previous fighter has shown the kind of stability and sortie generation rate that the F-35 is showing at this early stage, he says.
Currently, pilots are flying with a very limited envelope of only 450 knots and 5G. The focus of most of the training is on practicing basic airmanship-take-offs and landings, formation flights and handling characteristics. Given that the aircraft has very limited tactical employment capabilities at this early stage, pilots are spending much of their flight time practicing emergency procedures. Kloos says that it is important for the new instructors to hone those basic skills so that they can pass those on to less experienced aviators as they begin flying the F-35.
Once enough of the initial cadre of instructor pilots is fully trained, the 33rd FW will embark upon an Operational Utility Evaluation (OUE) later in the year. The OUE will evaluate the training syllabus and jets at Eglin to ensure that both are ready for regular usage. The "students" will be two highly experienced Eglin initial cadre pilots and two operational test pilots, both of whom are veteran aviators.
"It's a very important evaluation,"Kloos says. "We need to make sure we're ready for it so we can give our four-star confidence that we can go forward with training."
Once the OUE proves to Air Education and Training Command (AETC) chief Gen Edward Rice that the 33rd FW is ready to start regular training operations, he will give his approval to do so.