What It's Like Training Brand-New Air Force Pilots on the F-35A

The Air Force is training its youngest pilots on its newest and most combat-capable aircraft: the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter.

Six airmen, ranging from first to second lieutenants, are going through the F-35 "B-Course," or the service's basic flight class, at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona.

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

"It's helpful to have a new student with no previous background, so they're a fresh plate, a brand-new sponge … ready to absorb all the tactics that we're going to teach them because it's the future," said Capt. Ian Osterreicher, F-35 B-Course flight commander at the 61st Fighter Squadron.

"Our goal is to get them through the eight-month training course, combat ready so they can … go to an operational squadron," Osterreicher said in a recent interview with Military.com.

The Air Force's only operational Joint Strike Fighter squadron is at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, from which eight of the aircraft recently flew to Europe for the F-35A's first military training deployment.

After a year of routine training, the new pilots arrived at Luke in December to begin basic systems, simulation and weapons training to familiarize themselves with the avionics. In February, the students took to the skies for the first time.

During the 141-day training course, the pilots will rack up 300 hours of academics; 46 simulator exercises, amounting to 80 hours; and 48 flights in the F-35, also roughly 80 hours, Osterreicher said.

The instructors include four Australian pilots; the Royal Australian Air Force is also buying the F-35.

The 62nd Fighter Squadron, the 61st's sister squadron, began training a six-person class this week, officials at Luke said. The 61st will get its next batch of airmen in September.

Within five years, the squadrons hope to produce about 60 pilots between them, Osterreicher said.

The last few weeks of training have focused on tactical air intercepts, combat maneuvering and dogfighting -- "more into the challenging tactical intercepts while incorporating the mission systems," he said.

Osterreicher said that there's not a heavy emphasis on dogfighting, but if the F-35 were ever in that scenario, "we have to be able to give them the skill-set to survive."  

Toward the end of the course, pilots get into "beyond visual range" training -- something they could also encounter in an anti-access aerial denial, or A2AD, environment.

"They'll start working on air-to-ground support, air interdiction and suppression of enemy air defense, which is really the highlight of the course," he said, including air-to-air training with F-16 Fighting Falcons.

After completing the course, the plan is for the pilots -- so far there haven't been any female students -- to report to Hill AFB before another operational squadron is stood up.

One challenge, Osterreicher said, has been the students' lack of previous experience on other aircraft, so they're learning "as they go." Still, it's manageable. It's been a step-by-step approach every day, he said.

"Still fly the F-35 safely, but execute the missions that we're trying to do -- that's been the biggest challenge," he said.

Safety concerns are the primary reason a pilot might be disqualified from the course, he said.

For example, if "they couldn't take off or land properly, not safe -- their landings were just too hard," Osterreicher said. Or if a pilot repeatedly burst the "training bubble," which mandates pilots cannot get within 1,000 feet of another training aircraft. "You're getting too close to the instructor, so you're breaking a training rule."

The student pilots have until their August graduation to prove their worth.

Luke will receive 144 F-35s by 2022. The Air Force anticipates buying 1,763 F-35s overall.

Growing the F-35 pilot ranks has become a top priority for the service.

Osterreicher himself started flying the A-10 Thunderbolt in 2010.

"I thought I'd fly the A-10 … and gain thousands of hours until I retired. But now what's great about this community is that the instructor cadre has all this experience from the A-10 and F-16 and F-15 communities to now be the experts in the F-35," he said.

"Our number one mission is to get them ready for the combat Air Force," Osterreicher said.

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