Swift Progress: F-35 Operations At Luke AFB

By Eric Hehs Posted 5 August 2015

The US Army Air Corps deployed a team to Phoenix, Arizona, in 1940 to scout for a place to train fighter pilots. The Sonoran Desert south of the Arizona capital offered ample airspace and optimum flying conditions. The training base was soon established west of the city and named Luke Field after Phoenix native and Medal of Honor recipient Lt. Frank Luke, Jr., who recorded eighteen aerial victories before being killed in action in France during World War I.

During World War II, more than 17,000 pilots were trained at Luke, making it the largest single-engine advanced training school in the United States. During the war, the base earned the nickname, “Home of the Fighter Pilot.”

That fighter pilot training tradition continues today at Luke with the F-35 Lightning II. The base has been designated as the primary F-35A training base for the US Air Force as well as for eight international partner air forces and several other countries purchasing F-35s under Foreign Military Sales, or FMS, programs.

“Five years from now operations at Luke will appear similar to the glory days at the height of F-16 training here when we had more than 200 F-16s on the ramp and F-16s were in the pattern all of the time,” said Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus, the 56th Fighter Wing commander. “By 2020, every sunshade on the ramp will have an F-35 under it.”

That prediction is well on its way to becoming fact at Luke in mid 2015. When Pleus took over command of the wing in June 2014, the base had three F-35s on the ramp. “The aircraft were not flying that often,” he recalled. “Today, I have a full fighter squadron with twenty-five airplanes, and they are flying as often as we want them to fly. The transition is going better than I had hoped.”

Those first twenty-five aircraft fill the wing’s first training squadron, the 61st Fighter Squadron. Subsequent F-35s arriving in 2015 will populate the second training unit, the 62nd FS. Eventually, the 56th Wing will have six F-35 training squadrons flying 144 F-35s.

The progress leading up to this point has been swift. The 61st FS and its associated 61st Aircraft Maintenance Unit formally stood up in October 2013. The first F-35s arrived in March 2014. The wing completed its 100th F-35 sortie in August 2014. The academic training center that contains classrooms and simulators essential for F-35 pilot training opened in October 2014. The first international partner aircraft, two Royal Australian Air Force F-35As, arrived in December 2014.

The progress continued in March 2015 with the first student pilot sortie, F-35 transition training for Pleus himself. The first substantial deployment of F-35s from Luke to another operating location came in April 2015 when ten aircraft were sent to Nellis AFB in Nevada. The 1,000th sortie was flown that April as well. The first pilot training class began in May 2015. The first international student, an Australian pilot, flew in August 2015 as part of the second class of future F-35 pilots to be trained at Luke.

Contractor Support

The F-35s at Luke are maintained by a combination of military and contractor support personnel. Lockheed Martin is responsible for maintaining partner country F-35s, which as of July 2015, consist of the first two RAAF F-35s at the base. In a unique government/industry arrangement, the company will be responsible for initially maintaining all the F-35s of the 62nd Fighter Squadron. These aircraft start arriving in late summer 2015.

“The Lockheed Martin support at Luke is huge,” added Pleus. “Experience plays a major part in standing up a new airplane. And most of the experience we have is from the contractor side. Traditionally, for example in the F-16 world, an experienced crew chief has seen everything. If something breaks, he or she has probably dealt with it before. No such military crew chiefs exist in the F-35 world. The best we have are some experienced maintenance personnel who worked on the airplane when it first showed up at Eglin AFB. These maintenance personnel are few and far between. So we rely heavily on the experience and professionalism of the contract personnel here from Lockheed Martin and other companies.”

Since more than half of the F-35s eventually assigned to Luke will belong to air forces of F-35 partner and FMS countries, more than half of the maintenance will be the responsibility of Lockheed Martin. “The contractors here now are excited about what they are doing and they are really good at it,” added Pleus. “We are learning a lot from them. We have a great partnership here at Luke.”

As the site lead for Lockheed Martin at Luke, Art Cameron manages all the company employees as well as employees reporting to nine F-35 subcontractors at the base for a total of about 200 people. That number should grow to about 800 by 2017.

“We are a force enabler to the base,” he explained. “We provide F-35 maintenance and pilot training. We support the Autonomic Logistics Information System, or ALIS. We also provide support equipment and spares.”

International Influx

The international aspects of F-35 training at Luke make operations at the base much different from other F-35 bases. Here, international partner countries train and fly with their US Air Force counterparts. And F-35s belonging to these partner nations will eventually account for about half of the F-35s in each of the six training squadrons at the base. FMS countries will also provide their own F-35s. Instructor pilots for FMS pilot training will come from the US Air Force Reserve Command unit at the base, the 944th Fighter Wing, and its flying unit, the 69th Fighter Squadron. FMS F-35s will also be contractor maintained, though some on-the-job training for initial FMS maintenance personnel is likely as well.

“We are building the coalition warfighter for the future here,” added Cameron. “How we perform for the international partners at Luke is key to the success for how the international partners and FMS air forces will do in bedding down the F-35 in their own countries. We are proof of concept for both the sustainment and interoperability strategies for the F-35A.”

As more international F-35s arrive at Luke, more international pilots and maintenance support personnel will show up as well. Two Norwegian F-35s are expected before the end of 2015. These aircraft will go to the 62nd Fighter Squadron. The Norwegian Lightning IIs will be joined at the 62nd by the first Italian F-35s beginning in 2016. Turkish, Dutch, Danish, and Canadian F-35s will follow in subsequent years. FMS aircraft will start showing up as early as 2015 beginning with Japan followed by South Korea.

RAAF Sqdn. Ldr. Nathan Draper is at the forefront of the F-35 international influx into Luke. As the partner maintenance lead for Australia, Draper is responsible for the Australian aircraft at Luke. “I am Australia’s eyes and ears on the ground here overseeing our two aircraft,” he explained.

Draper arrived at Luke in January 2014 to begin a three-year assignment. “We had no F-35s when I first got here,” he said. “I was the third person in the building. Initially, we had about twelve Air Force maintainers located in another building. One of our first milestones was getting office furniture. Then the first F-35s showed up. Then more came. Our Aussie jets arrived last December, solidifying the international partnership.”

The two RAAF F-35s carry serial numbers and markings unique to Australia, including the Australian flag on the tail and a kangaroo on the inlet. Draper injects a bit of his home country’s slang by affectionately referring to the aircraft as Skippy 1 and Skippy 2.*

“It’s exciting to work shoulder to the wheel with our US colleagues,” said Draper. “Everybody understands how pivotal the F-35 and its capabilities are for the future of their air forces and combat fleets. We have a good relationship with the United States, the US Air Force, and with coalition operations over the last few years. Coming here and being the first international representative at Luke for the F-35 program and to help my own air force understand how to carry out F-35 operations is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Academic Training Center

Standing up operations for a new fighter is a once in a lifetime opportunity for most everyone involved with the F-35 at Luke. Skip Hopler, the manager for F-35 training operations, however is one of the rare exceptions.

“When I was interviewing for this position, I told them that I had seen this movie before,” he said.

That previous movie featured the F-16. Hopler was one of the first four fighter pilots in Tactical Air Command sent to Hill AFB in Utah in late 1978 to set up training operations at the 16th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron, the first operational squadron of F-16s, where Hopler was in charge of developing courseware for the Air Force’s newest fighter. Today, he is responsible for the Lockheed Martin ground training program for the world’s newest fifth generation fighter.

Ground training has changed a lot in those thirty-plus years. “We didn’t have personal computers in my office until the mid 1980s,” Hopler recalled. “We used sound/slide programs. For one of the first such programs, I carried my camera to the flight line at Hill and took photos of the aircraft cockpit displays for a lesson in how to conduct preflight checks on the F-16. We provided a narration and projected the images on the screen of a cockpit familiarization trainer that simulated an F-16 cockpit.”

That cockpit trainer was a primitive forerunner of the training devices used at the Academic Training Center, or ATC, at Luke today. “Today we have stick and throttle and high-resolution forty-inch touchscreen displays that accurately mimic the workings in an actual F-35 cockpit. Students can go into the classroom after hours and practice any procedure in the syllabus.”

The newly constructed ATC occupies 170,000 square feet and has space for twelve full mission simulators (four are installed and working now), classrooms, and instructor offices. The facility is part of the $220 million capital projects at Luke related to the F-35.

Initial classes are transition training for experienced pilots transitioning to the F-35 from a variety of combat aircraft, including the A-10, F-15, F-16, and F/A-18A. Requirements for the training include 600 hours of flight time as well as instructor pilot experience. Most initial graduates will go on to become F-35 instructor pilots. Class size is currently four pilots, but will grow to six or eight. Transition training begins with about six weeks of ground training at the ATC before the first of nine or ten flights.

The initial lessons focus on a basic understanding the F-35: how to take off, land, fly formation, and use cockpit controls to interact with the various sensors on the aircraft. Tactical employment comes into play in subsequent lessons: how to employ the F-35 in both air-to-air and air-to-ground scenarios.

“One of the great parts of this program is having experience pilots from different platforms coming to the F-35,” noted Lt. Col. Sean Holahan, an Air Force Reserve Command F-16 pilot who will eventually apply his F-35 skills to train FMS pilots at the 69th FS at Luke. “Blending skillsets of pilots from different aircraft will make the F-35 more capable in all of its missions.”

Holahan is one of four students in the first F-35 class at Luke. The class began instruction on 4 May and is scheduled to be completed in late July. “The instructional program has gone really well,” he said. “Every student in the class is an experienced instructor pilot, but none of us can tell that ours is the first class to go through this program. The syllabus and instructors are first rate.”

Capt. Mike Hobson is one of two students in the first F-35 class at Luke who are coming from the A-10. He said the transition from a slower ground attack aircraft to a fast jet fighter has not been that difficult. “The only thing the A-10 does fast is slow down and taxi,” he explained. “The F-35 accelerates fast but doesn’t slow down fast. Everyone talks about how powerful the F-35 engine is, but you can’t appreciate the power until you fly it.

“Speed is a difference but it’s not what makes flying the missions difficult,” Hobson continued. “You can take any fighter pilot and teach them to fly the F-35. A-10 pilots have very limited air-to-air experience. For an F-16 pilot they are learning differences in how the F-35 can be used for air-to-air missions. For A-10 pilot, air-to-air missions are new. We may not have the experience, but we don’t have any air-to-air habits to unlearn.”

Unknown Potentials

“I didn’t know what to expect when I was selected to fly the F-35,” said Lt. Col. Paul Jelinek, the director of operations at the 61st FS. “I had 2,000 hours in the F-16, so initially I was trying to compare the two aircraft. I soon learned the F-35 is completely different.”

Those differences are increasing as the capabilities and performance of the F-35 improve with software updates and modifications.

“I am looking forward to being a part of seeing what this aircraft will be in the future,” added Jelinek. “I’m excited to be at the forefront of a new aircraft program. I am flying a fighter that my two-year-old could fly someday. To be in a position to influence the F-35’s evolution is awesome.”

“The more I fly the F-35, the more I see how great it is,” said Pleus. “The F-35 will be a game changer for the US Air Force. I compare it the F-16 in the late 1970s and early 1980s in terms of potential. The F-16 was designed to be VFR fighter that dropped only iron bombs. When it went operational initially, no one imagined it would become this night platform with an ability to drop precision weapons guided by lasers and GPS signals.

“Our starting point for the F-35 surpasses many of the capabilities we have with the most capable F-16. So the future for the F-35 holds even greater potentials. The Air Force is going to have F-35s for a long time. The capabilities it has now are phenomenal. The capabilities it will have in the future will be amazing.”

Eric Hehs is the editor of Code One


* Skippy is another word for kangaroo in Australia. The term comes from a children’s show that aired in Australia the late 1960s called “Skippy the Bush Kangaroo” about a ranger and his son who live in one of the country’s national parks. Skippy was the name given to the son’s pet kangaroo.

Eric Hehs is the editor of Code One.