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Peeking into the Air Force's F-35 Training Course

An F-35 Lightning II pilot takes off July 17, 2017 from Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Pedro Mota)
An F-35 Lightning II pilot takes off July 17, 2017 from Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Pedro Mota)

1st Lt. Brett Burnside soared at Mach 1.4 -- 1,075 miles per hour -- supersonic in the dead of night over the desert, inverted over his wingman.

As a brand-new pilot, such a feat gave Burnside a burst of adrenaline. What's more, he was pulling the move in the centerpiece of Air Force's future fleet: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

"You can practice and practice and practice as much as you want, but when it comes to flying the jet, whether it's in a train or combat scenario, you have to have the ability to execute," Burnside told Military.com in a recent interview.

"Not to say that all of us are perfect, because we are not by any means perfect at all times," he said. "We're always going to have minor errors here and there, but your goal is to limit the impact and frequency of errors every time you go out there."

Burnside, who's racked up roughly 90 flight hours, and five other F-35A pilots graduated the service's eight-month "B-course," or basic flight class, at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, on Aug. 5. They were a part of the 61st Fighter Squadron.

The only platform these pilots have known in their brief Air Force careers is the Lightning II.

While acknowledging that he's low on the totem pole in terms of what his role has been thus far, Burnside said F-35 pilots must all be the best of the best.

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"It made me realize as a brand-new F-35 pilot, that even though my qualification will be wingman, that doesn't mean I can stay in my own little safe bubble," he said during a telephone interview.

"As a fifth-gen wingman in the F-35, I may be 10 to 15 miles away from my flight lead, running similar tactics,” Burnside said.

"My job is to provide situational awareness to F-16s, F-15s, A-10s -- people that don't have the SA that I can see -- almost like a God-like perspective, I guess," he said.

'Adapt as You Go'

Burnside said his biggest takeaway from the last few months of training is the importance of being flexible and "adapt as-you-go" while prioritizing the task at hand in flight.

"Really, you have to have an ability [to ask yourself], … 'What are my priorities? What do I need to be doing at this moment with my hands?' You kind of have to figure out based on what's going on around you, whether I should be focusing on an air-to-air gameplan, should I be looking for [surface-to-air missiles]? Or supporting another blue force out there," he said.

Burnside's B-course began Dec. 5 with a month of classroom basics to identify how each system in the F-35 -- the Pentagon's most expensive program to date -- works.

Next was ground simulator training, including "hours and hours of learning" how pilots should handle emergency situations, he said.

Then in February, the six pilots took to the sky for the first time. Flights progressed from learning basic air-to-air maneuvers, to air-to-ground weapons drops, to suppression of enemy air defenses -- or seeking out enemy surface-to-air missiles and "destroying them," Burnside explained.

"You're no longer just learning a basic mission or skill, you're put into a larger scenario with more aircraft and where you're having to do both air-to-air and air-to-ground," he said.

At Luke, the pilots tested their weapons bullseye skills. They dropped both inert and live "GBU-12s, which are laser-guided munitions," during air-to-ground exercises.

It's about "learning different airspeed limitations, different G limitations, different characteristics of [any] weapon -- what it can do, what it can't do," he said, referencing what pilots may expect as more weapons are added to the F-35 in future.

Of course, air-to-air missile launches were only simulated, Burnside said.

Toward the end of the course, the pilots flew to Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, to "use their range for surface-to-air threat [training]," he said.

Around that same time, training scenarios got harder, similar to what pilots can expect at big exercises such as "Red Flag," held annually at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

"To get to that level was pretty incredible," Burnside said, looking back to the first day in the classroom to the Red Flag-like training.

"That flexibility, task prioritization and execution are hands down the three most critical things that force you to figure out, 'What should I be doing how should I be doing it, and why?' " he said.

Hypoxia: a Wrinkle in Training Time

Although the stand-down of F-35s at Luke over hypoxia-related issues affected the students' training time, Burnside said the impact "was negligible."

"Not to say it's not a serious issue … it's a serious condition," he said of the events that came nearly a decade after similar incidents occurred in the F-22 Raptor.

In June, the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke halted operations for all F-35As there after pilots complained of hypoxia-related issues.

In succeeding days, the Air Force established initiatives to keep pilots safe when flying and to avoid experiencing symptoms -- shortness of breath, confusion, wheezing -- in-flight. Those initiatives include a backup oxygen system, wearable technology to monitor pilots' oxygen levels, and a restriction of how high pilots can take the craft.

The F-35s at Luke resumed flight that same month. A root cause has not been found.

During the stand-down, the Air Force Academy graduate said the pilot trainees were able to "get everything done on time."

"I luckily did not experience any hypoxia-like symptoms in any facet while I was training in the F-35 at Luke," he said, describing the changes as wearing "a helmet-mounted pulse ox[imeter] system that monitored our heart rate, our oxygen levels, and we also wore a finger-mounted one … to get two different readings," he said.

Burnside said the Air Force wanted duplicate monitors so maintenance technicians and medical professionals could decipher the "O2 readings from both sensors in order to try to find a diagnosis, pinpointing an exact time it happened … and therefore, you could dig into mission systems and look at, 'OK what is our oxygen supplying at this time [or this altitude]' as a way to gather more data."

He said any changes related to the F-35 were relayed to the trainee pilots immediately.

"It was extremely transparent to me, for any modification during this program -- whether that's in the jet or something [such as] the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS)" or ejection seat weight restrictions, he said.

But flying was all that was on the 25-year-old pilot's mind.

Integrated Flights

Starting out in the fifth-generation F-35, Burnside said he didn't fully understand what fourth-gen fighters could bring to the table.

That changed when the trainee pilots integrated with the Arizona-based 309th Fighter Squadron, the "Wild Ducks F-16 squadron."

"I hadn't seen one airborne before," he said of the F-16s.

"I went straight from pilot training to the F-35, so it's quite a quantum leap in terms of understanding mission systems, weapons systems and integration," Burnside said.

The pilots also worked with local air tanker units flying with them for exercises.

"It's kind of cool to see another airplane that's unlike your kind of airplane flying out there right next to you," he said.

The weapons school at Nellis provided simulated exercises for the F-35 pilots, including teaching them how best to work with electronic attack or command and control aircraft such as the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) or the EA-18G Growler, he said.

The F-16s and F-35s from the 62nd Fighter Squadron, the 61st’s sister squadron, at Luke sometimes acted as "red air" sorties during their training.

"It was meant to push us to a point where [we] didn't understand what was going on many times in an effort to push you harder than you needed to be pushed," Burnside said.

What's Next

Burnside and his five classmates are headed to the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah -- one of four U.S. F-35A locations.

"I know we have some stuff planned for the future -- theater security packages -- but I can't really speak to that," he said.

In April, a handful of the Lockheed Martin Corp.-made fifth-generation stealth fighters flew overseas to Europe for several weeks in the aircraft's first training deployment to the continent.

In recent months, Air Force officials have said they plan an F-35 theater security package rotation, or TSP, to the Asia-Pacific region. Such a rotation includes forward-deployed aircraft and units that conduct missions across the continent over six months to reassure allies.

Burnside added, "We do expect to busy, and we do expect to be on the move quite a bit."

The next B-course training is already underway at the 62nd Fighter Squadron. The 61st will get its next batch of airmen in September, Burnside said.

Burnside said he got the urge to become a pilot after watching the movie "Top Gun," even though it's about Navy pilots. But of course, that wasn't reason enough.

Flying "only appeals to some people. I wanted to fly, and I thought this was a great way to get to a fighter jet," he said of the F-35 program.

"It's long days, it's busy days … it's not an easy job," Burnside said. "But it's rewarding. I found myself in an organization where [pilots] have the ability to impact … the world on a global, strategic level. And I think that's a pretty humbling thing."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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