At Eglin Air Force Base, the largest focus of operations–and therefore the component of activity receiving the most scrutiny–is the looming IOC deadline of the Lockheed-Martin F-35A Lightning II, currently scheduled for next year.
Eglin, a sprawling complex located in the Florida panhandle, has been the USAF’s epicenter for all F-35 training since the first aircraft arrived on 15 July 2011. The initial complement was nine aircraft, spanning all three variants destined for services with the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.
At the present time, according to Eglin officials, there are 26 F-35As and 17 F-35Cs on station; the Marines have moved their jets to MCAS Yuma in the west and MCAS Beaufort in the east, preparing for their own IOC push this summer. In the mean time, Eglin has gone from flying nine lines per day in 2013 to a milestone on 8 June of this year, when nineteen F-35 sorties were generated in a single day of flying.
Colonel Todd Canterbury, outgoing commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing, says, “We are flying large force exercises, F-22 integration sorties, and we’re training students on a regular basis.”
So the F-35 is coming along and is ahead of where it was a year ago to the day, when a jet caught fire on takeoff. Because of that mishap, there were severe limitations placed on the operating envelope: no maneuvers placing greater than +3 Gs on the aircraft, not exceeding Mach .9 indicated, and maintainers “scoping” the engine after every three flight hours. As one might imagine, those LIMFACs seriously hampered efforts to get the jet on the step.
Pilots are now able to operate within a normal training envelope and with an upcoming incremental upgrade to Block 2B software, the G-limitation will be relaxed to +7.5 Gs, higher-Alpha maneuvers can be employed and, most importantly, the jet will have the ability to actually drop ordnance. Long story short, capabilities-wise, the F-35 is starting to progress again.
Even so, the stress on the 33rd Fighter Wing comes down to the number of bodies. So far, 163 pilots have been trained to fly the aircraft at Eglin. Just under two thousand maintainers have been through the schoolhouse as well, and therein lies the biggest challenge facing the aircraft’s operational timeline: having enough trained, qualified maintainers to keep the jets in the air and sustain the operational requirements as part of the IOC mandate.
Part of the plan to meet the deadline for having enough maintainers is the proposed retirement of the A-10C Thunderbolt II which, as we all know, has met with fierce opposition both on Capitol Hill and within the ranks of the Air Force’s attack community. The current requirement is for 1,100 trained F-35 maintainers. So far that figure is just under 700 with less than a full year before the deadline. The Air Force needs to finalize its plan to meet the stated objective before the end of this summer in order to have a chance to meet the IOC requirements.
Undeterred, leadership at the 33rd is optimistic about the ability to meet the stated goal. Both the new Wing Commander, Colonel Lansing “Shoulda” Pilch, and the Operations Group Commander, Colonel Chris “Moto” Niemi, are high-time F-22A Raptor pilots who bring a great deal of 5th-Generation experience to the table, as well as first-hand knowledge of the challenges and growing pains of fielding a new weapons system.
With quality men like those at the top, it’s hard to imagine the 33rd Fighter Wing not being ready when the time comes for the F-35 to get over that hurdle.