Flight training on the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) continues to accelerate at the US Air Force's 33rd Fighter Wing.
"During our first week of flying in March, we had two flights scheduled. Then in the fourth week of May we had twelve sorties scheduled and eleven flown. Now in August we are planning a standard of sixteen F-35A sorties a week," said Lt Col Lee Kloos, commander of the wing's 58th Fighter Squadron. "In September we will go to a planned twenty-sortie week as our standard."
Though the F-35 is still in its infancy, the pilots and maintainers at Eglin AFB-home of the 33rd FW-in Florida have shown that the aircraft can fly multiple sorties in the same day. Pilots at the base are also routinely flying two-ship missions, Kloos says.
Part of the reason the 33rd FW has been able ramp up its operations so quickly is because of an increasing number of available aircraft. There are currently nine F-35As, nine US F-35Bs and one UK F-35B stationed with the 33rd FW. But the unit has also rapidly started to qualify more instructor pilots.
"Progress can be demonstrated in two ways, the increasing amount of aircraft we have on the flight line at the 33rd Fighter Wing and the increased pace of our flight ops," says US Marine Corps Col Arthur Tomassetti, vice-commander of the 33rd FW. "As of today we've flown almost 160 sorties between the A and B models. Secondly, we are getting more pilots qualified to fly the F-35A and B variants. The Marine Corps' VMFAT-501 has five pilots flying for the F-35B squadron with the last two pilots in the process of being qualified."
Meanwhile, the USAF currently has three instructor pilots qualified on the F-35A with two more in training. One of the soon-to-be two instructors is 33rd FW commander Col Andrew Toth.
But the F-35 is also slowly maturing, Tomassetti says.
"We are also going through our first software upgrades from the Block 1A to Block 1B in the A and B variants, which brings more capabilities and gets us closer to the full-up fifth generation F-35," he says. "One noticeable example is the voice recognition feature being enabled so there is no need to manually switch between radio channels when talking through the mask."
More upgrades are coming-the Block 2A software, which incorporates simulated weapons and greatly increased sensor fusion will enable pilots at the 33rd FW to start realistically training for combat missions.