The US Department of Defense's first non-test pilot finished his qualification to fly the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter on 31 May.
"I was excited not only to complete my flight to become an F-35 instructor pilot, but also for the rest of the initial cadre since this opens the door for them to also become qualified in the F-35," says US Air Force Lt Col Lee Kloos, commander of the 58th Fighter Squadron (FS).
To qualify as an F-35 pilot, Kloos had to fly a transition course that consisted of six flights in the jet. As part of the first batch of instructors for the new fifth-generation fighter, Kloos will help train the rest of the initial cadre of F-35 pilots at the seaside base.
The 33rd Fighter Wing (FW), the 58th FS's parent unit, needs to have four instructor pilots trained in order to start the F-35's Operational Utility Evaluation (OUE) in the summer. The OUE will determine if the 33rd FW and the F-35 are the ready to train new pilots to fly the F-35. If the OUE is successful, Air Education and Training Command will approve the unit to formally start training.
The USAF currently only has two F-35 instructors at the base, Kloos and his director of operations, test pilot Lt Col Eric Smith. Smith was Kloos's instructor pilot having long ago qualified to fly the aircraft at Edwards AFB, California.
The USAF says there are additional two pilots who are awaiting approval to start their flight training. Once those two additional instructors are qualified to fly the F-35, they will teach four new "students" for the OUE.
Student, however, is a relative term. The four students are highly experienced fighter pilots who are transitioning to the F-35. Two are 33rd FW initial cadre pilots while two are from the elite 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron.
"These four students have not flown an F-35 before and this will count as their check-out," the USAF says. "The OUE will evaluate our ability to qualify these four individuals."