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F-35 training center ready for first students

Jun. 20, 2010 - 08:53AM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 20, 2010 - 08:53AM  |  
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EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — The first pilots and maintainers tapped for the new F-35 Lightning II will start a training regimen this fall that the Air Force hopes will be a model for all countries with fighter jets.

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EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — The first pilots and maintainers tapped for the new F-35 Lightning II will start a training regimen this fall that the Air Force hopes will be a model for all countries with fighter jets.

The regimen calls for airmen, naval officers, sailors and Marines to learn the ins and outs of the Joint Strike Fighter on laptops and full-motion simulators as well as fly and work on F-35. Instructors will do a dry run of the course in July.

"We're laying a template for how the free world will fly fighters for the next 35 to 50 years," said Col. David Hlatky, commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing, which stood up Oct. 1 as the military's first F-35 joint service training wing.

Right now, the wing has about 200 instructors from the Air Force, Navy and Marines, but should hit full strength of 2,000 by 2014. By then, the wing will have at least 59 F-35s for training; the first one is scheduled to arrive in November.

Each of the services will have a training squadron under the 33rd. Fifteen F-35Cs, the JSF carrier variant, will be assigned to the Navy's VFA-101 "Grim Reapers" of Strike Fighter Squadron 101, which stands up in 2013; 24 F-35As will fall under the Air Force's 58th Fighter Squadron "Mighty Gorillas" that also stood up in October; and the Marines will have 20 F-35Bs assigned to the VMFAT-501 "Warlords" of Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron, which stood up April 2.

The instructors are focused on their jobs, although they admit the ongoing debate in Washington over the F-35 can be distracting. Today, the price tag for each fighter is nearly double what it was in 2002 — $92.4 million versus $50.2 million — and is 13 months behind schedule. The Corps is set to get its first F-35s in 2012, with the Air Force and Navy scheduled to receive their fighters in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

"We read the news," said Maj. Eric Smith, an A-10 and F-16 pilot with the 58th. "It's tough to ignore."

In the next 25 years, the Pentagon plans to buy 2,443 F-35s. All will need pilots and maintainers, who will be trained here.

"Whether they are pilot students or maintenance students, they are going to start in electronic classrooms," the wing's vice commander, Marine Col. Arthur Tomassetti, said while standing in a classroom with joysticks and 42-inch flat-screen monitors at each desk.

Each student will go through nine months of training. The training regimen will vary only a week or two by service to account for the F-35 variants, Tomassetti said.

The wing already has a basic JSF simulator and plans to install six to eight full-motion simulators, said Greg Wilder, a retired major and a contracted instructor. Each simulator will cost about $12.5 million and feature 24 projectors with touch screens and flight controls.

Each pilot must fly at least five missions inside the simulator before his first ride in a JSF, Smith said. If the fighter's delivery date continues to slip, the pilots will continue to train in the advanced simulators. Smith pointed out simulators are much more sophisticated than they once were but still can't take the place of planes, where pilots can feel G forces.

The technological advancements built into the F-35 will make it easier to train new students, especially compared with the AV-8B Harrier jump jet, said Tomassetti, a former test pilot for Harriers.

"My son D.J. is 7 years old. He landed the airplane on the boat on his first try. He had a lot of coaching, but in the Harrier that would be weeks just to get that skill," Tomassetti said.

Construction has started on what 33rd leaders describe as "the campus," which includes a dormitory, dining hall and Academic Training Center that will be large enough to hold six football fields. The project should be completed in January, Hlatky said.

As the 33rd grows, so will the relationships between the pilots and maintainers from different services and different countries. The first foreign students will be British pilots scheduled to arrive in 2011, Tomassetti said.

When student pilots arrive from pilot school, he said the joint training will introduce them early to the Defense Department's "joint approach." He admitted, though, that he sometimes has to play referee.

"I take my leadership hat off and put my parenting hat on, and [use] all the skills I've learned when there is one sandbox and lots of kids from the neighborhood," Tomassetti said.

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