An F-35A taxis into a hangar at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., where pilots and maintainers are being trained on the new Joint Strike Fighter. (Thomas Brown / Staff)
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Brothers, weapons officers go through training together
EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – The rivalry between the Edwards brothers began as they grew up in their Slater, Mo., hometown, through college in Iowa, multiple postings as F-16 pilots in the Air Force and now as some of the first F-35 pilots in the pipeline.
The brothers, Majs. Nick Edwards, a weapons officer from the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and Colby Edwards, the weapons officer at the 58th Test and Evaluation Squadron at Eglin, have been assigned together in the F-35 pilot schoolhouse.
“It’s been great, being able to bounce ideas off him for stuff we have going on in weapons shop here, being able to have someone with a personal connection to talk about things going on with the aircraft,” said Nick Edwards, 33.
The brothers have been able to help each other through training and their assignments at Eglin, but the rivalry always simmered underneath, they said.
“He knows who’s smarter,” Colby Edwards, 35, said of his younger brother. “Who’s better looking, better flying, the guy who has more hair.”
While Colby Edwards was selected for the program a year before Nick Edwards, the younger brother was able to go through a selection board for operational test pilots and began training just a month after his older bro started. As Nick Edwards took his first flight April 18, Colby Edwards was there to schedule the flights and watch the weather.
Nick Edwards only has a few weeks left in training before heading back for operational test flights in California. In the meantime, the brothers get to spend time together, both with their families and with the Air Force’s fighter of the future.
“It’s good to be hanging out with him and having dinner, talking about the aircraft,” Nick Edwards said. “It probably drives our wives crazy because we talk about work a lot more now,” Colby Edwards said. — Brian Everstine
EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – It may be years before it’s fully operational, but to the pilots and maintainers in training here, the F-35 has gone from a PowerPoint presentation to a reality in the skies over northwest Florida.
The Air Force variant is flying six times a day and about 30 times per week. The Air Force, Marine Corps and U.K. models here have clocked more than 1,000 hours over the past year.
“This is a real building with real pilots, maintainers and support,” said Col. Andrew Toth, commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing, which oversees all F-35 training. “I think some of the mystery goes away when people come down and visit us. It’s a lot of hard work, and it’s a good training system.”
This year is one of change for the F-35; the officers in charge of training the pilots and maintainers expect it will be a big year for production and the output of fliers and ground crews.
Currently, nine F-35As sit on the flight line at Eglin, along with 11 F-35Bs for the Marine Corps and the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force. Within weeks, two more Air Force variants are expected to arrive. After that, the next two F-35As will come with the newest software capability, called block 2B, with training beginning in the late fall.
The Air Force has 12 qualified instructors and is moving on with the second and third class of pilots.
“We get a lot of visitors here, and the general impression is the F-35 is still just this PowerPoint airplane that exists in some fashion in the electronic world, and people don’t realize the amount of work and effort that has gone on down here to set up this training system,” said Lt. Col. Lee Kloos, commander of the 58th Fighter Squadron at Eglin that trains all Air Force pilots.
There’s a reason for that impression. The F-35 is years behind its original schedule and costs are growing. Dozens of canopies on Eglin’s flight line sit empty, waiting for more jets that were originally supposed to reach full rate production last year, according to the 2001 system development schedule.
Initial operating capability — not officially announced by the Air Force — is expected to be around 2016, Toth said, about one year after the Marine Corps’ variant.
The Air Force’s F-35A was originally scheduled for initial operating capability by 2012-13, according to the baseline schedule established in 2003.
New software, behind schedule
The Joint Strike Fighter’s greatest asset to the force, many say, is the technology it provides to the pilot. The jet’s software, featuring more than 24 million lines of code, communicates to the pilot through large touch screens that are like “two iPads next to each other,” Kloos said. A display mounted to a custom-made helmet feeds even more information right before the pilot’s eyes.
Toth said once fully operational, the aircraft will “bring a capability to our services and our partner nations that we haven’t seen before with the fourth-generation fleet. It really is a system of systems, and all of the systems onboard are fused.”
But this unprecedented capability is bringing unprecedented problems and delays. The Defense Department grounded the entire fleet earlier this year after crews found a crack in the turbine blade of an F-35B. On April 18, the Air Force variant was cleared to resume in-air refueling that had been suspended for months.
The program’s executive officer, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, recently told the Senate Armed Services committee he is “less confident” the plane will make its final capability date of 2017.
“What I see today for 2013, ’14 and then ’15 for the 2B capability, the initial capability, is a software process that is improving,” Bogdan said. “We have lots of metrics that we can show you and that, in part, is what causes me to say I’m moderately confident up to 2015.
“I can honestly tell you, beyond 2015, I don’t have a great answer right now because there’s a lot of things that have to happen between now and 2015 to give you more confidence in 2017.”
Block 2B includes limited combat support for internal weapons such as the AIM-120C missile and the GBU-32/31 and GBU-12 bombs, according to the Defense Department. This is the software that will be in the jet when it reaches initial operating capability, Air Force officials have said.
The Air Force’s budget proposal is calling for a total of 24 F-35s, increasing the amount for training at Eglin and helping stand up a training center at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.
But the budget proposal does not take into account the effect of sequestration, which has already wreaked havoc on the Air Force by forcing the grounding combat squadrons and cancellation of large-scale exercises such as Red Flag.
If these budget cuts are not reversed, the Air Force will be forced to cancel more purchases this year, said Maj. Gen. Edward Bolton, the deputy assistant secretary for budget.
“We’re still working out the details on exactly what the reductions will be, but it could be in the order of three to five aircraft,” Bolton said.
The Air Force is already using service life extension programs to keep F-16s flying while the F-35s are delayed. These jets have seen extensive use in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will continue to fly until at least 2030while the F-35As stand up.
“We had anticipated many years ago to actually have F-35s on the ramp right now, along with a much larger fleet of F-22s,” said Lt. Gen. Burton Field, the deputy chief of staff for operations, at a recent House Armed Services committee hearing. “Well, that did not come to pass for any number of reasons.”
Limited capabilities for students
Currently every F-35 pilot in training comes through the northwest Florida base, taking their first taxi rides and flights in the Joint Strike Fighter at Eglin. The first class of six Air Force pilots finished early this year, with the second class taking their first flights in mid-April; the third class is in the middle of academic training.
Following academics, the pilots-in-training spend time in full mission simulators that are “better than anything I had in my whole career in [F-]16s,” Kloos said. Each pilot flies about 14 or 15 missions in the simulator, with each flight lasting about an hour and a half.
Eglin pilots are facing “superficial” limits placed on the jet until it is further proven in testing at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Pilots cannot push the plane to more than five and a half G forces and 550 knots.
“Locally, we don’t have that authority to go to all the same limits that the aircraft will eventually be cleared to do ... as it matures more, tests start to gather more data and they feel more comfortable in the entire envelope, they’ll continue to open that up to us,” Kloos said.
As more aircraft are delivered to Eglin, officials expect the schoolhouse to train about 100 Air Force pilots per year, Toth said.
For the Air Force, the pilots have come from almost all fighter platforms, except the F-22. Each pilot has experience as a fighter pilot, but also hundreds of hours as an instructor. This means they can adapt to the F-35 relatively quickly, said Maj. Jay Spohn, an instructor and the first pilot from the Air National Guard to train at Eglin.
“They don’t really require a lot of instructor-pilot intervention or assistance,” Spohn said. “They are pretty competent and very capable students.”
Ease of maintenance
On the maintenance side, the base is expecting to churn out a total of 2,100 maintainers per year, across all services and partner countries.
To reach this number, the base has created a schoolhouse that more closely resembles a college campus than a military base. The dorms, classrooms and a dining facility are surrounded by walking paths and wooded areas.
It’s a different style of training for a jet that is unlike any others on the maintenance side, said Staff Sgt. Matthew Lohman, an F-35A crew chief instructor.
“The ease of maintenance on this is tremendous,” Lohman said. “When we start to get these younger guys coming in, it’s going to be simple for them.”
Maintenance students have a three-month long curriculum that, like pilots, begins in the classroom. But the maintainers are quickly thrown into a digital world, using computer-simulated training that includes a visual mockup of an F-35 on a digital flight line, allowing the students to practice maintenance on screen before heading to two full-size mock-ups, one for weapons loading and another for cockpit work, in a large hangar on the campus.
“They can go out and visually see it, and when they go out to the flight line it’s exactly like the virtual computer,” Lohman said. “So they’re like ‘Oh yeah, I know how to do this task. I know where the switch is.’ ”
In the hangar, instructors pipe in simulated engine noise as students practice working on the cockpit’s ejection system or loading inert 500-pound bombs.
The F-35’s ease of maintenance has allowed the crews to change the way they operate, Lohman said. It is designed to have more computer-based troubleshooting and with features like a component-based engine that lets crews do a lot of work in the “shadow of the airplane,” as opposed to pulling it in to a hangar. This has also allowed for a different workflow, he said.
“Now we’re integrating crew chiefs and engines,” he said. “Engines is coming to crew chiefs, we’re all integrating together because unlike legacy, we don’t have engine troops. The crew chiefs are the engine troops, so we have to perform those tasks.”
'Very young weapons system'
At the beginning of this year, Toth told his base it would be a year of “safe and effective flying operations,” and to continue to produce F-35 pilots and maintainers, at a rate of six pilots coming in per month and about 700 maintainers expected to finish training by the end of the year.
But at the same time, more challenges are expected. Crews are going to adjust to the new block upgrade, extending the course.
“We have a lot of challenges. Occasionally the aircraft will be stood down for different things that go on, but that is all a part of the challenge of a brand-new weapons system. It is a very young weapons system from an execution perspective, and we still have a lot to learn,” Toth said.
“What I see is the entire team ... moving this program forward, and they understand the importance of getting through these challenges.”