F-35 Program Ramps Up Training for Pilots, Technicians

National Defense Magazine // November 13, 2015

The F-35 joint strike fighter program is transitioning to a day when its pilots will come fresh out of flight school and the new jet fighter will be their first assignment.

The services’ cadre of pilots so far have been veterans of other programs such as the F-15, F-16, Harrier or A-10s, said Mike Luntz, director of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 training systems.

“Many of the pilots that we have trained to date have been the more experienced pilots,” he said in an interview. “They typically have over 1,500 hours, maybe up to 3,000 hours of actual flight time in other fighter aircraft.”

Lockheed Martin, in addition to being the builder of the aircraft, also has the contract to provide training for both pilots and maintainers, including classroom instruction, flight simulators for pilots and mock-up aircraft for technicians.

These new so-called “category-one” pilots will have only about 200 hours of flight time in T-38 trainers at flight school and will be asked to take control of the U.S. military’s newest 5th-generation aircraft, which currently cost a little more than $100 million each.

“They just got their wings and they’re ready to move from that trainer aircraft into that fighter aircraft,” Luntz said. Lockheed Martin is gearing up to support the first batch of these less experienced pilots at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina.

During their first flight in an F-35, they will have an instructor flying in tandem, but since the F-35s are all single-seaters, they will be on their own, he said. 

“They don’t have as much experience with fighter aircraft so the concern is safety,” he said.

The general feedback Lockheed Martin has received from the experienced pilots who have flown the F-35 so far is that it is easier to handle than earlier generation fighters. The complexity comes in all the missions it must perform, Luntz said.

“In general, the pilot of the F-35 is going to transition from someone that is very proficient at flying a complex aircraft to flying something that is much easier to fly, but now they are focused much more on the mission and the advanced capabilities that the F-35 brings. [The pilot] is really more of an information manager and absorbing that information and making decisions based on the sensor fusion capabilities of the aircraft.”

The Air Force and Marine Corps experienced several “firsts” in 2015 as the program progressed.

Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona, home of Marine fighter attack squadron 121, received its first four simulators, which had been upgraded with the latest software.

The Air Force’s 31st test and evaluation squadron provided the Army with close-air support in a Green Flag exercise operated out of Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas. The 56th Fighter Wing from Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, deployed to Nellis to see how it would operate away from its home base. 

As for pilot training, it takes about three months and begins with classroom instruction, Luntz said.

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