The U.S. Air Force has finally approved the beginning of formal pilot training for the F-35, a major step forward to eventually declaring initial operational capability for its budding F-35A fleet.
The approval comes after more than a year of delay.
Gen. Edward Rice, who heads the Air Education and Training Center, finally gave the formal nod to begin pilot training today during a visit to the base, which is where the first F-35 schoolhouse has been established. The training courses will begin in January.
The Air Force had slated to begin formal pilot training last fall, but that plan slipped owing to concerns offered by the Pentagon’s chief tester about the single-engine, stealthy jet’s readiness for regular operations. The Air Force opted instead to institute a rigorous process to test the training syllabus during a formal operational utility evaluation (OUE), which ended earlier this fall. “We didn’t expect any surprises and we didn’t have any surprises,” Rice tells Aviation Week of the OUE.
Meanwhile, the Marine Corps has been training pilots using its F-35B aircraft at Eglin. “Today is a significant milestone. We have been flying the aircraft for some time now. We have got enough data to give us level of confidence that we are on the timeline that we set out for ourselves, which was slow, to medium, to fast in terms of how aggressive we are going to be and that we are able to begin a formal pilot training program.”
Though the OUE used the syllabus for the F-35A Block 1A version, the first class to go through formal pilot training will use the Block 1B software, Rice says. Six classes, each with six student pilots, are slated for the next year. That pilot production rate of 36 pilots is likely to hold for the foreseeable future, he says, though when more aircraft begin delivering for operational an increase will be necessary. “We designed the system to start very slowly,” he says.
The 1A software simply allowed for basic flying and approaches into Eglin. The 1B software includes some data fusion in the cockpit avionics and security features. Weapons capability does not show up, however, until Block 2B.
All the pilots to be trained in the next year will be instructors.
Maintainer training began earlier this year with the arrival of the first F-35A. Nine F-35As owned by the U.S. Air Force, 11 F-35Bs owned by the U.S. Marine Corps and two F-35Bs owned by the United Kingdom are housed at Eglin.