Peeking into the Air Force’s F-35 Training Course
1st Lt. Brett Burnside soared at Mach 1.4 -- 1,075 miles per hour -- supersonic in the dead of night over the desert, inverted over his wingman.
As a brand-new pilot, such a feat gave Burnside a burst of adrenaline. What's more, he was pulling the move in the centerpiece of Air Force's future fleet: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
"You can practice and practice and practice as much as you want, but when it comes to flying the jet, whether it's in a train or combat scenario, you have to have the ability to execute," Burnside told Military.com in a recent interview.
"Not to say that all of us are perfect, because we are not by any means perfect at all times," he said. "We're always going to have minor errors here and there, but your goal is to limit the impact and frequency of errors every time you go out there."
Burnside, who's racked up roughly 90 flight hours, and five other F-35A pilots graduated the service's eight-month "B-course," or basic flight class, at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, on Aug. 5. They were a part of the 61st Fighter Squadron.
The only platform these pilots have known in their brief Air Force careers is the Lightning II.
While acknowledging that he's low on the totem pole in terms of what his role has been thus far, Burnside said F-35 pilots must all be the best of the best.
"It made me realize as a brand-new F-35 pilot, that even though my qualification will be wingman, that doesn't mean I can stay in my own little safe bubble," he said during a telephone interview.
"As a fifth-gen wingman in the F-35, I may be 10 to 15 miles away from my flight lead, running similar tactics,” Burnside said.
"My job is to provide situational awareness to F-16s, F-15s, A-10s -- people that don't have the SA that I can see -- almost like a God-like perspective, I guess," he said.
'Adapt as You Go'
Burnside said his biggest takeaway from the last few months of training is the importance of being flexible and "adapt as-you-go" while prioritizing the task at hand in flight.
"Really, you have to have an ability [to ask yourself], … 'What are my priorities? What do I need to be doing at this moment with my hands?' You kind of have to figure out based on what's going on around you, whether I should be focusing on an air-to-air gameplan, should I be looking for [surface-to-air missiles]? Or supporting another blue force out there," he said.
Burnside's B-course began Dec. 5 with a month of classroom basics to identify how each system in the F-35 -- the Pentagon's most expensive program to date -- works.
Next was ground simulator training, including "hours and hours of learning" how pilots should handle emergency situations, he said.
Then in February, the six pilots took to the sky for the first time. Flights progressed from learning basic air-to-air maneuvers, to air-to-ground weapons drops, to suppression of enemy air defenses -- or seeking out enemy surface-to-air missiles and "destroying them," Burnside explained.
"You're no longer just learning a basic mission or skill, you're put into a larger scenario with more aircraft and where you're having to do both air-to-air and air-to-ground," he said.
At Luke, the pilots tested their weapons bullseye skills. They dropped both inert and live "GBU-12s, which are laser-guided munitions," during air-to-ground exercises.
It's about "learning different airspeed limitations, different G limitations, different characteristics of [any] weapon -- what it can do, what it can't do," he said, referencing what pilots may expect as more weapons are added to the F-35 in future.
Of course, air-to-air missile launches were only simulated, Burnside said.
Toward the end of the course, the pilots flew to Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, to "use their range for surface-to-air threat [training]," he said.
Around that same time, training scenarios got harder, similar to what pilots can expect at big exercises such as "Red Flag," held annually at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.
"To get to that level was pretty incredible," Burnside said, looking back to the first day in the classroom to the Red Flag-like training.
"That flexibility, task prioritization and execution are hands down the three most critical things that force you to figure out, 'What should I be doing how should I be doing it, and why?' " he said.