US Air Force operational testers will start receiving their first Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighters at Edwards AFB in California in late June, a service official says.
According to the official, the 31st Test and Evaluation Sqn will initially receive four aircraft, with more to follow later.
If flight operations at Eglin AFB, Florida - scheduled to start on 6 March - ramp-up quickly to begin pilot training, the official says he is optimistic the operational testers can start flying by the end of June.
© Lockheed Martin
The unit will initially start with local area flight operations designed to familiarise pilots with the F-35 and help with developmental test efforts. They would also help prepare for formal initial operational testing, which is still some years away, the official says.
In September, the USAF's 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nevada will begin to receive its first aircraft. Initially, the squadron will receive four aircraft, with more as time progresses.
Meanwhile, Air Education and Training Command (AETC) chief Gen Edward Rice approved test pilots to begin flight operations at Eglin AFB on 2 March. The air force had earlier issued a military flight release that would allow the F-35 to fly from 28 February.
Initially, two qualified test pilots - air force Lt Col Eric Smith and US Marine Corps Maj Joseph Bachmann - will take to the air on 6 March, weather permitting.
The veteran test pilots will fly a series of local area flights to gauge the readiness of the 33rd Fighter Wing's new F-35As and assess the robustness of the unit's maintenance procedures.
When the aircraft and maintenance procedures prove they are up to the task of running a full-scale training syllabus, the AETC will authorise the wing to start spinning-up new instructor pilots and students.
Smith and Bachmann will serve as instructors for the rest of the wing's aviators. The USAF, Marine Corps and US Navy have assembled some of their best, most experienced pilots to form the initial cadre at the 33rd Fighter Wing.
A Marine Corps official said the service hopes to have its short take-off and vertical landing F-35B variant also flying at Eglin AFB by the end of the month.