Continuing a Legacy: The Road to USAF F-35A Initial Operational Capability
On Aug. 2, 2016, less than seven years since the first F-35 A variant’s first flight, the U.S. Air Force declared F-35A Initial Operational Capability (IOC), marking a major milestone for the Air Force and the entire industry team. The IOC declaration continues the Air Force’s proud legacy of excellence, and ensures global air superiority for the top-notch Airmen who will operate, sustain and fly the advanced stealth fighter.
Paving the road to IOC were many major events, milestones and accomplishments made possible by the thousands of men and women working towards this declaration.
AF-1 Takes Flight
On November 14, 2009, the first F-35 A variant, known as AF-1, took off from Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas – the first flight for the Air Force’s first multirole 5th Generation Fighter. During the flight, Lockheed Martin test pilot David “Doc” Nelson flew to an altitude of 20,000 feet, lowered the landing gear and performed 360-degree rolls. This flight signaled the first of many landmarks on the road to IOC.
F-35A Arrives at Eglin AFB
Less than two years later and a brief 90-minute ferry flight from Fort Worth on July 14, 2011, the first production model F-35, assigned to the 33rd Fighter Wing, arrived at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. The aircraft, known as AF-9, was the third production-model F-35 delivered to the Air Force. This was an important step in the IOC story – it marked the beginning of training for F-35 pilots and maintainers at the air base’s new F-35 Integrated Training Center (ITC). To date, the ITC has become home to a full spectrum of the latest courseware, electronic classrooms, simulators and flight events, ensuring superior training for the next generation of pilots and maintainers.
F-35A Excels at Weapons Tests
Above the lake beds of Edwards Air Force Base, California, on Feb. 16, 2012, AF-1 flew its first external weapons test mission with notable success. During this mission, AF-1 carried two AIM-9X short-range air-to-air missiles on the outboard wing stations, a 2,000-pound GBU-31 guided bomb, and two AIM-120Cs in the aircraft’s two internal weapon bays.
Just a year later, Air Force test pilot Lt. Col. George Schwartz was at the controls of AF-1 when it fired its first powered AIM-120 air-to-air missile launch. This launch was the first step toward targeted launches in support of the Block 2B software release. Click here to watch the launch and an interview from Lt. Col. Schwartz.
F-35A Completes High Angle of Attack Testing
On May 16, 2013, the F-35 flight test team completed F-35A high angle of attack (AOA) testing at Edwards AFB. The testing accomplished high AOA beyond both the positive and negative maximum command limits, including intentionally putting the aircraft out of control in several configurations. For all of the testing, recovery from out-of-control flight was totally successful without the use of the spin-recovery chute. Find out more about high AOA here.
F-35A Arrives at Luke AFB
In 2014, the first F-35A for the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, was officially delivered. This signaled the delivery of the 35th F-35 to the Air Force and the stand-up of the eighth F-35 base. Click here to watch the story of Luke AFB’s first F-35.
"This program is built on a foundation of unprecedented international partnership that is embodied at the integrated training center at Luke AFB.” said U.S. Air Force Gen. Robin Rand, former Commander of the Air Education and Training Command, Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. “Together, we will train the next generation of pilots who will protect freedom at home and abroad."
The First USAF F-35A Squadron is Completed
The 58th Fighter Squadron at Eglin AFB became the Air Force’s first complete F-35A squadron on May 28, 2014. Maj. Scott Charlton, a 58th Fighter Squadron pilot, ferried the aircraft from the Lockheed Martin facility in Fort Worth, Texas, to the base in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. This F-35A was the 26th and final A model to be delivered to Eglin AFB’s 33rd Fighter Wing.
"We are focusing now on refining our processes and training, improving our tactics, and really optimizing our overall program to meet the needs of the Air Force as our Airmen move out to other F-35 missions," said Lt. Col. Matt Renbarger, the 58th Fighter Squadron commander.
Luke AFB 56th Fighter Wing’s New Mission
On March 21, 2015, Luke AFB’s 56th Fighter Wing conducted a Change of Mission, formally including the F-35A as a part of the wing’s new mission statement. Luke AFB, which is scheduled to have six fighter squadrons and 144 F-35As, had been an F-16 -only installation for the past 19 years.
"Today we take another step forward for the U.S. Air Force and our partner nations by formally updating our mission statement. Beginning today, the mission of Luke Air Force Base is simple - train the world's greatest F-35 and F-16 fighter pilots,” said Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus, 56th Fighter Wing commander at the time.
F-35A Arrives at Hill AFB
The F-35A’s arrival at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, is a major part of the road to IOC. On Sept. 2, 2015 the first operational F-35As landed at Hill to become part of the air base’s active duty 388th Fighter Wing and Reserve 419th Fighter Wing, the first combat-coded units to operate the F-35.
“The F-35A Lightning II represents the future of tactical aviation for the United States and our allies,” said Col. David Lyons, 388th Fighter Wing commander. “Alongside our 419th Fighter Wing counterparts, we’re excited to usher in a new era of combat capability for the Air Force.”
The Air Force’s Ogden Air Logistics Complex at Hill AFB, located several miles down the road, was also home to a series of structural and systems modifications required for the Air Force to declare IOC. The hard work of the Airmen, civilian government employees, and industry team led to all modifications being completed ahead of schedule.
F-35A Deploys to Mountain Home
June 2016 marked one of the F-35’s final tests on the road to declaring IOC. The 388th Fighter Wing and Reserve 419th Fighter Wings from Hill AFB performed a capstone deployment exercise, deploying seven aircraft from Hill AFB to Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. This deployment was the first time Hill AFB’s operational F-35As traveled to a non-F-35 base for training. The F-35A pilots and maintainers from Hill AFB sought to push the air system to its limit to fully test the deployment capability of the unit, aircraft and Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS). ALIS proved crucial to achieving high-temperature flying operations, and maintainers reported the robust system performance met their needs to deploy anytime and anywhere to carry out the Air Force’s missions.
During the deployment, the wings planned 88 sorties, and flew all 88. The F-35 went undefeated in all engagements with 4th Generation aircraft. Additionally, it hit 15 of 16 intended ground targets with GBU-12s – the single off-target drop was due to an issue with the bomb. “This was really the capstone event in our preparations to reach IOC and it was a resounding success,” said Col. Lyons.
The Legacy Continues
Less than two months after this capstone exercise, the Air Force has declared F-35 Initial Operational Capability. The years, moments and milestones leading to IOC have been filled with challenges, collaboration and a commitment to excellence. The Air Force now has the capability to deploy the F-35 – the world’s most advanced multi-role fighter jet – whenever and wherever it is called upon. For the brave Airmen who will fly and maintain the F-35 in combat, dominate the skies, and safeguard our freedom – the legacy of excellence continues.