Accelerating Down the Home Stretch Toward F-35A Operations

F-35A Lightning II

The U.S. Air Force will take the F-35A Lightning II into initial operations this year following a steady ramp up of aircraft testing and training. With the milestone only months away, the Air Force is making its final preparations and ensuring the Airmen who operate and maintain the F-35 have the tools to fly, fight and win.

The 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base in northern Utah represents the nucleus of the efforts underway. As the first F-35A operational squadron, the 34th is going through its paces and building up its fleet of aircraft along with the supporting infrastructure, says Kevin Smith, the F-35A U.S. Air Force program manager at Lockheed Martin.

“The focus now is on sharpening the edge,” says Smith, who flew A-10s and F-15Es during his military service. “The foundational elements are in place at Hill Air Force Base, and we have a last few improvements to deliver to fully enable the capabilities the Air Force needs for initial operations.”

Technology and Tactics

The build up at Hill Air Force Base began last summer with the delivery of the fleet management system called the Autonomic Logistics Information System, or ALIS. With ALIS, support equipment and spares in place, the first two aircraft ferried to the base from the factory in September 2015 to begin flying operations.

A complement of four Full Mission Simulators completed installation in December, and the combination of aircraft and simulators made it possible to start mission qualification training and working on tactics.

“To become fully qualified on the F-35 following their schoolhouse graduation, the pilots are conducting a variety of air-to-air and air-to-surface exercises,” says Smith. “The training is designed to prepare pilots for missions such as close air support, interdiction and persecuting enemy air defenses, and also ensuring the maintainers have the on-the-job experience they need to efficiently return the jets to operational status.”

As another training milestone, the 34th Fighter Squadron will begin weapons drops at the Utah Test and Training Range in late February with inert GBU-12s.

The last items on the to do list for the F-35A initial operating capability (IOC) are completing aircraft modifications, delivering a software upgrade for the aircraft and for ALIS, and rounding out the suite of support equipment.

One Team, One Mission

As the Air Force draws near to its IOC, Smith says the lessons learned from the U.S. Marine Corps IOC in 2015 are helping to make the path more straightforward for the Air Force this year and for the Navy IOC in 2018.

Hill Air Force Base
Senior Airman Samantha Callaway, an Air Force reservist in the 419th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, performs a routine inspection on an F-35A’s internal weapons bay at Hill Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force photo/R. Nial Bradshaw)

The experience preparing for IOC reverberates beyond the Armed Forces to the industry team members, many of whom have worked on the F-35 program since development began.

“About a quarter of our employees have military service like myself, and to give back to the services that have been so much a part of our lives is very rewarding,” says Smith. “There is a lot of pride in what we’re doing. Our mission now is to help the F-35 services meet their objectives.”

While the 34th Fighter Squadron prepares for IOC, the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron from Edwards Air Force Base in California is deployed to Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho for an important test mission. This is the first simulated deployment test of the F-35A Lightning II, specifically intended to execute three key initial operational capability mission sets: suppression of enemy air defenses, close air support and air interdiction. Upon completion of the test, the lessons learned will be shared across the F-35 enterprise. Read more