F-35: New Fighter Creates New Culture for 21st Century and Beyond
"I’ve never seen a pilot come back from his first sortie without a huge smile on his face. It’s something new, and programs like this only come around every 30 years or so, and to be on the ground floor – it’s the perfect time."
By Rich Lamance
She didn’t have a smudge on her. Not a leak found anywhere. She even had that “new jet smell.” Skies were blue, everything was perfect. Those were the conditions on that July day in 2011 when Lt. Col. Eric Smith took off from the Lockheed facilities at Fort Worth, Texas, in the first operational F-35 to fly to its permanent home at Eglin Air Force Base, in the Florida panhandle. And the rest, according to Smith, who would go on to pick up three of the first six F-35s from the factory, is history.
“It was just a great day – I was just a little bit nervous because I knew that if I messed it up it would be on the front page of every newspaper in the country,” said Smith. As he approached the runway at Eglin, he found bleachers full of people and a red carpet rolled out to signify the beginning of an era for not only the plane, but for the newly reorganized 33rd Fighter Wing, Eglin Air Force Base and the future of Air Force air superiority for the 21st Century.
The pick of the 33rd Fighter Wing “Nomads” to transition the Air Force’s newest and most lethal fighter into this century and beyond was no accident. With a history that dates back to World War II when the wing was a pursuit group, the 33rd showcased the F-4 Phantom during Vietnam and the F-15 Eagle through crises such as Grenada, Panama, Desert Storm, and post 9/11, when the Nomads provided armed over-watch throughout North America for Operation Noble Eagle, securing two presidents of the United States and multiple space shuttle launches.
“On Oct. 1, 2009, we stood up as an F-35 unit,” said Lt. Col. Matt Renbarger, 58th Fighter Squadron commander. “We were handed keys to an empty building, with five pilots, a technical sergeant, two lieutenant colonels and three majors.”
Renbarger and Smith both admitted that those early days, following the arrival of the first F-35, was a whirlwind of planning, creating policy and guidelines and putting together a training program with a syllabus, academics, and a completely new maintenance program.
Smith said that the early days with the first few aircraft were a challenge, not only for the pilots, but for the newly trained crew chiefs as well. “There was a lot of tech data that the technicians needed before they could work on the airplane, so the first six planes we delivered sat for about eight months before we were issued flight clearance. We didn’t receive our first flight clearance until March of 2012. “
Renbarger said that, like anything brand new and right out of the box, there were a lot of things that had to be learned that weren’t known before. He said that as a training unit, it was more Air Combat Command versus Air Education and Training Command. “It’s not a different mindset, but it’s more of a different mission. Here we create new pilots and maintainers, so we don’t have the downrange focus. Training pilots is our product.
“When test pilots at Edwards find something they tell us, and when we find something we tell them. When software is released they’ll come down here and tell us things they’ve learned. We’ll take new capabilities and bring them into our training syllabus. The folks at Edwards bring us the latest so we can teach the people who teach the people. We teach the teachers and the teachers teach the students.”
Renbarger said there is a lot to like about the F-35, from the standpoint of the pilot, the maintainer, the trainer, down to the bottom line of mission success. “I’ve never seen a pilot come back from his first sortie without a huge smile on his face. It’s something new, and programs like this only come around every 30 years or so, and to be on the ground floor – it’s the perfect time."
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