LUKE AFB, Ariz., 21 April 2014. Personnel at the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base (AFB) – responsible for training F-16 and F-35 fighter pilots and maintainers, qualifying instructors, conducting conversion pilot training, instructing forward air controllers, and deploying mission-ready combat pilots –performed the first F-35 training deployment this month. Luke AFB officials sent 10 F-35 Lightning II aircraft, half the base’s current fleet of F-35 jets, to Nellis AFB, Nevada, for two weeks to see how well the team could conduct operations elsewhere.
“Operating away from Luke has been a huge success for the wing, Team Nellis, and the F-35 program in general. We are learning lessons that will be important for our pilots and maintainers across the F-35 program,” affirms Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus, 56th Fighter Wing commander.
Learning whether a team of F-35s can operate on the road is important as the Air Force strives to reach Initial Operational Capability (IOC) during the fall of 2016, officials say. To reach IOC, a squadron must have 12 or more aircraft and Airmen trained and equipped to conduct basic interdiction, close air support, and limited suppression and destruction of enemy air defense operations in a contested environment.
“The objective of this event was to integrate F-35 pilots from Nellis, Eglin, and Luke Air Force Bases and operate on the Nevada Test and Training Range, while executing off-station maintenance operations,” explains Lt. Col. Michael Ebner, 61st Fighter Squadron commander. “The lessons learned by pilots and maintainers will lay the foundation for future training and deployment operations. The entire squadron understood the significance of this event and stepped up to the challenges that presented themselves.”
“Though Luke is a training base, we will continue to push the training here to be as close to the operational side as we can,” Pleus adds. “This helps us learn to be more efficient, which will set future operational bases up for success.”
Luke’s 56th FW will provide the training and cadre of pilots and maintainers to fill operational bases around the world.
“Until now, the Air Force F-35 program had not moved this many jets and conducted sustained operations at another base,” Ebner says. “Nellis AFB was the perfect place to test this operation. Our maintainers fixed aircraft and generated sorties without any F-35 deployment templates. The pilots integrated and discussed tactics with not only other F-35 pilots, but also with pilots from other platforms such as the F-22 and F-16.”
The wing’s 61st Fighter Squadron received its first F-35 in March of 2014 and flew its 1,000th sortie last month. In as soon as 18 months, pilots and maintainers from that unit may be some of the first Airmen to fly operational sorties in combat around the world in the F-35A.
“I couldn’t be more proud of how our maintainers and pilots worked to move the F-35 program forward,” adds Ebner, a prior F-15E and now F-35 pilot whose career includes more than 2,100 flight hours and combat sorties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 61st FS now has 20 F-35s assigned, two of which belong to the Royal Australian Air Force, an F-35 pilot training partner nation. Italy and Norway are scheduled to join the Glendale, Arizona, base later this year. By 2024, Luke is expected to have six F-35 squadrons with 144 jets and will train pilots and maintainers from 11 countries.