Pilot training on the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter at Eglin AFB, Fla., is gathering momentum with the qualification of U.S. Air Force instructor pilots to perform aerial refueling with the F-35A.

Lt. Col. Lee Kloos, commander of the 58th Fighter Squadron at the Eglin Integrated Training Center (ITC), on May 14 became the first non-test pilot to conduct an aerial refueling in the F-35.

The milestone allows aerial refueling to become a standard part of the syllabus at Eglin and also enables training missions to be extended. “It will help with the number of pilots we can graduate,” he says.

“This week we will qualify all 12 instructors and then include aerial refueling in the Block 1B syllabus for all new pilots,” Kloos says. “It is taking time, but little by little aircraft’s capabilities are coming on.”

In recent months, the ITC has been cleared to conduct training missions using the F-35’s internal electro-optical targeting system and simulated weapons, Kloos says.

Through April 30, 44 pilots had been qualified on the F-35 at Eglin, including two from the U.K., and 1,700 training hours flown, says Mary Ann Horter, Lockheed Martin vice president for F-35 sustainment.

Aircraft are currently loaded with Block 1B software, which provides an initial training capability only. Block 2A, also for training only, is on track for delivery in October, she says.

A second training center, for the U.S. Marine Corps’ F-35B, is scheduled to open at MCAS Beaufort, S.C., in 2014, and a third in 2015 at Luke AFB, Ariz., for the Air Force F-35A and international customers.

Kloos says the F-35 is a stable refueling platform. Behind the tanker, handling qualities of the Lockheed Martin F-16 are “like driving a bumpy gravel road, while in the F-35 it’s a smooth, paved highway.”

The view is echoed by Tech Sgt. William Joe Parker, boom operator in the 336t Air Refueling Sqn Boeing KC-135 for the first refueling mission at the Eglin ITC. “He just parked the aircraft behind ours.”

The F-35’s flight-control laws change when the refueling-receptacle doors are opened, making it easier for the pilot to make small corrections, a technique similar to that used in the F-16.

Eglin training missions began soon after the F-35A was reapproved for aerial refueling. The original clearance was withdrawn in 2011 following delayed boom-disconnect issues on test flights at Edwards AFB, Calif. The problem was found to be isolated to a small number of early test aircraft, Kloos says.