The U.S. Air Force declared the joint-service pilot training and maintenance wing for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter “ready for training” the first instructor pilots on the F-35A conventional takeoff and landing variant, beginning in January. Next summer, the wing will begin training Navy pilots on the F-35C carrier variant of the fifth-generation fighter.
Air Force Gen. Edward Rice Jr., commander of the Air Education and Training Command, made the declaration during a visit to the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., on December 17. Rice said the preliminary results of an operational utility evaluation “show the F-35A and its pilot training and sustainment systems are robust enough to conduct the planned pilot transition and instructor upgrade courses.” The Marine Corps is also training pilots at Eglin AFB on the F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing variant. In addition, the 33rd wing has trained more than 500 maintainers since it was reformed from an F-15 wing in late 2009.
In a teleconference with reporters, Col. Andrew Toth, 33rd Fighter Wing commander, said the Air Force plans to graduate 36 instructor pilots by the end of 2013, including pilots who will teach at Eglin AFB and serve in operational test squadrons at Nellis AFB, Nev., and Edwards AFB, Calif. With pilots from the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, the Netherlands and the UK, the wing expects to train a total of 88 pilots next year, and eventually increase to 100 pilots annually.
“Our goal in the near term is to get enough [instructor] pilots trained to be able to conduct operational test and to stand up pilot training center one at Luke Air Force Base” in Arizona in 2014, Toth said. The Air Force will then train new student pilots to fly the F-35. The service plans to declare initial operational capability of the fighter in 2016.
At Eglin AFB, pilots have been training on F-35s with Block 1B software. The course entails 130 hours of academic training over six weeks and six weeks of flying, including 21 hours in the simulator before actual flight. Next summer, the training will transition to Block 2A and eventually Block 2B software, adding the capability of mission systems including the F-35’s Northrop Grumman electro-optical distributed aperture system. There are currently 22 of the fighters at Eglin AFB: 11 Marine Corps F-35Bs, nine Air Force F-35As and two UK military F-35Bs.