A test pilot at the 33rd Fighter Wing has flown the first local area flight by a Lockheed Martin F-35 at Eglin AFB, Florida, the US Air Force announced on 6 March.
"Our first sortie is truly a milestone for the programme," said Col Andrew Toth, 33rd Fighter Wing commander.
But the first flight was marred by an in-flight emergency, when test pilot USAF Lt Col Eric Smith declared an emergency due to a potential fuel leak 15min into what was supposed to be a 90min flight.
© US Air Force
"Our team did the most conservative thing by deciding to bring the plane back. We trained for this many times in the simulator for this exact reason," Smith said.
Toth, himself a highly experienced former Boeing F-15 pilot, concurred.
"Unfortunately things happen. We didn't want it to happen today but we were prepared," Toth said. "Our pilot did the exact right thing in returning the jet back to Eglin. Although there were issues, we are doing whatever we can to move the programme forward safely and effectively."
The plan for Eglin is that initially two qualified test pilots - Smith and US Marine Corps Maj Joseph Bachmann - 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 Air Education and Training Command 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, Marines and US Navy have assembled some of their best and most experienced pilots to form the initial cadre at the 33rd Fighter Wing.
A USMC official says 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.