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Hundreds Of Pilots, Thousands Of Sorties: Eglin's F-35 Program Reaches New Milestones

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Courtesy of Eglin
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The F-35 program based at the 33rd Fighter Wing aboard Eglin Air Force Base is continuing to notch local milestones, with the jet’s ten thousandth sortie at Eglin expected this week.

The benchmarks generally involve the Air Force variant, the F-35A Lightning II.  Late last week, crew members at the 33rd Fighter Wing for the first time loaded munitions on the aircraft. Cpt. Hope Cronin is the Chief Public Affairs Officer for the 33rd Fighter Wing, “They’re dropping munitions, specifically their dropping the GBU-12, which is a laser-guided bomb unit. It’s about 500 pounds.”

The jets took part in a mission, dropping munitions at Camp Shelby in Mississippi. Cpt. Cronin points out that until now, the launch of the bombs from the aircraft were only simulated. Subsequently, she says this is an important step in the training of F-35A pilots, “As we’re one of the Air Force’s training facilities for pilots, we’re going to be training up to 100 pilots a year at this location, we want to send them forward into the combat air forces completely trained to the best of the ability that we can. And, being able to use live munitions gets us one step closer to having that pilot even better trained when he goes to a combat unit following this mission.”

Another important exercise conducted recently involved the mid-air refueling of the F-35. The 91st Air Refueling Squadron from MacDill Air Force Base flew over the Gulf of Mexico to provide mid-air refueling support to seven F-35As flown by members of the 33rd Fighter Wing’s 58th Fighter Squadron.

While touring the cockpit during the flight it’s evident that communication between pilots is a key part of the mission.

Members of the media along with ten F-35 maintainers were invited to experience the refueling flight. Those aboard had the rare opportunity to head to the back of the aircraft, climb down into the bay on either side of the boom operator, and while laying flat on their stomachs got a bird’s eye view of the refueling mission. The jets flew in close range of each other, at about 10 feet apart soaring at 400mph.

Once back on the ground at the hanger Cpt. Jay Moss, one of the pilots of the fuel tanker described the intricacies of the mid-air refueling, “When the aircraft is getting ready to be connected, the boom is extended ten feet, ten feet from the zero position. You’ve got to understand that the boom is already twenty eight feet long from the pivot point. And, from that ten they can go an additional (if I remember correctly) eight feet out to six feet in. It gives it range to be able to accept several receivers. Some receivers, for instance are up front, like an A-10, is right in front of the pilot. Where an F-22 is way in the back of the airplane, so, we need to have that extension ability. Also to compensate for pilot error, variations in wind, turbulence, whatever the case may be.”

The KC-135 fuel tanker flown was a 59’model and is considered the back bone of the Air Force, which is the overall backbone for U.S. and NATO allies for refueling according to pilot Capt. Jay Moss, It’s been in the service ever since, heavily modified throughout the years from the original airplane. There’s not much left but the body itself. The engines have been modified, the avionics that make it up to the standards of today’s technology.”

The F-35A training included a series of full missions conducted earlier this year at Avon Park as part of “Jaded Thunder.” Cpt. Hope Cronin says.

She says the recent loading and dropping of munitions had been scheduled to take place in late spring, but was able to be done sooner due to rigorous training and competition among crew members.

As for the plane itself, it’s undergone a lot of changes since the first models began landing at Eglin over the last couple of years, “Although they’re new aircraft, they’ve been coming off the production line in low rates of production. And, every aircraft that comes off the production line incorporates lessons learned…over the previous months, years or whatever…and so the aircraft coming off the production line today has a whole different level of capability than aircraft that came off the line two years ago.”

However, Cronin says they’re still working out some of the bugs, “While we’re a very far more mature developmental system, still not a fully operational system, so we expect to find new things. That’s part of what we’re here to do.”

Eglin was allotted up to 59 F-35s. The 33rd Fighter Wing, which is under the Air Education and Training Command, currently has 45 jets total, including 26 Air Force F-35As and 19 F-35C Navy variants. The F-35A is expected to achieve Initial Operational Capability (or IOC) later this year.