Members of the 33rd Maintenance Squadron move an F-35A Lightning II off the flight line and into a hangar at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., on Aug. 27. The Air Force is doing a review of the training operations for the aircraft at Eglin. (Samuel King Jr. / Air Force)
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The Air Force's variant on the joint strike fighter is reaching a "milestone," when the Air Force will review the training operations at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., and decide if progress on the human aspect of the program is ready to move forward.
This month, a team of evaluators from the Air Force's Testing and Operations Center began the process of evaluating every aspect of the training mission on the F-35A, with a main focus on the pilot portion of the training, said Col. Andrew Toth, the commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin.
The group's report will give officials the chance to give a go-ahead for training on the Air Force's next fighter, which has been in the air at Eglin since the spring. The Air Force has nine A models at present.
Some important aspects of the review:
• It's called an OUE. The program, called the operational utility evaluation, is the Air Force's review of the 33rd's training operation, giving the service a look at how Eglin has set up its training pipeline for pilots and maintainers on the new jet. The evaluators will look at areas such as the wing's sortie generation rate, pilot academic and simulator training to "ensure we are conducting safe training here at Eglin," Toth said.
"The evaluation takes a hard look at the system to determine that yes, in fact, the system as a whole is fully ready to go," he said.
• Preparation. The F-35A began flying operations in March at Eglin and in May held a "surge week" with a minimum of eight sorties per day to ensure that the 33rd would be ready when the OUE began. As of Sept. 10, the F-35A has flown 117 sorties.
"What we've seen over the course of the past eight months is we are ready to go and the entire team is excited started and looking forward to a successful OUE," Toth said.
• Concurrency changes. The Air Force usually moves from a developmental test on a new airframe, to an operational test and then training, but with a focus on concurrency to get the F-35 operational, that process has been compressed. The service is moving from the developmental test to training, and will conduct operational testing on the jet in the "near future," Toth said.
The Marine Corps, on the other hand, is holding off on its OUE until more production F-35B variants are delivered.
• The timeline. Fifteen evaluators from the Air Force Test and Evaluation Center arrived Sept. 5 for the evaluation, which began Sept. 10. The evaluation began with academics, which will go on for about six weeks. Then the flying portion of the evaluation will begin. In all, the evaluation will take approximately three months, Toth said.
• What's next. After the evaluation period, the personnel will write a formal report on their opinion of where things stand at Eglin. The report will be presented to Gen. Edward Rice, commander of Air Education and Training Command, who has the authority to determine if Eglin is ready for full training.