An F-35 Lightning II instructor pilot with the 58th Fighter Squadron, Eglin Air Force Base conducts aerial refueling for certification at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., May 13. (Master Sgt. John R. Nimmo, Sr. / Air Force)
It was the first time the new F-35A was refueled with a nontest pilot in the cockpit, and for all the excitement, it was a “nonevent,” the pilots and boom operators said.
On May 13, test pilots stepped aside to allow instructor pilots at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., fly the first F-35A formation to be refueled. The mid-May flights were also the first since the fleet was cleared to fly after the Defense Department restricted in-flight refueling in the Air Force fleet.
“We’ve previously done air refueling only in tests ... we’ve finally paved the way for nontest pilots to begin part of the training,” said Lt. Col. Anthony Pelkington, chief of flight safety for the 59th Fighter Squadron.
As of May 15, 13 pilots had flown 16 refueling missions “across the boom,” Pelkington said. The first step is to get the instructors qualified for refueling, then it will be added to the syllabus for the squadron. The 59th Fighter Squadron currently trains all Air Force F-35A pilots at Eglin.
The KC-135 Stratotanker that flew the refueling mission is deployed from the 336th Air Refueling Squadron at March Air Reserve Base, Calif. The refueling mission was “a breath of fresh air” compared to other airframes because they are going to be stable in the flight, Tech. Sgt. Joe Parker, the boom operator with the 336th ARS, said in a conference call with reporters.
The flight was easy because pilots did extensive simulator work before the flight, and the plane’s technology makes the approach easier.
“It was exactly what I expected; it was easy,” said Pelkington, a former F-16 pilot.
The flights came shortly after Eglin accepted its first advanced Block 2A F-35A on May 6. The new version of the jet features increased sensor and communication capabilities.