F-35 program officials are awaiting a clearance from the procurement community to begin local flight operations at Eglin AFB, Fla., a step closer to pilot training for the developmental stealthy aircraft there.

Air Force officials at the U.S. Air Force’s Aeronautical Systems Center in Ohio, which oversees procurement of service aircraft, are reviewing data collected during a period of “maturity flights” using two conventional-takeoff-and-landing F-35As (AF-6 and AF-7) at the Edwards AFB, Calif., test center.

AF-7 was the workhorse of the maturity testing, which began July 7 and wrapped up Aug. 31, according to Lockheed Martin, the F-35 prime contractor. AF-6 completed nine flights, or 16.1 hr. of flight, with AF-7 executing 22 flights totaling 37.9 hr. Between the two, 288 test points were completed, but the goal was to run the two pilots through the training syllabus in advance of starting formal training. The maturity flights included four single-ship basic airmanship assessments as well as a pair of two-ship basic formation flight assessments, Lockheed Martin says.

Though these two aircraft contained monitoring equipment, the tests were designed to give authorities confidence that student pilots can operate production aircraft — which lack monitoring equipment — in line with the syllabus. Though monitoring equipment was onboard, pilots were encouraged not to engage the control room unless it was necessary, to mimic as closely as possible the conditions a student pilot will encounter.

These maturity tests were added to the F-35 development in last year’s overarching Technical Baseline Review, which stretched out the program to reduce risk. Because so much flight testing and envelope expansion work remains, developers, testers and training experts wanted to ensure the aircraft is ready to support routine flight operations before the beginning of pilot training activities at Eglin.

The pressure has been on for the program to begin pilot training operations at Eglin because the military services require fully trained crews to declare initial operational capability; the services are eager to introduce the F-35 in their fleets to relieve pressure on legacy fleets.

Gen. Edward Rice, who oversees Air Education and Training Command, says he is “comfortable” with the pace of standing up training at Eglin, but he appears to be in no rush. “We really don’t have a time-driven schedule,” Rice told reporters Sept. 19 at the annual Air Force Association conference outside Washington. “We have an event-driven schedule. I’m not in an excessive hurry to start the training program.”

He notes that his focus is on ensuring that flight certification activities allow for activities at Eglin to ramp up.

Tom Burbage, executive vice president of F-35 integration at Lockheed Martin, says he hopes to have the first F-35 flying at Eglin by Oct. 31. Meanwhile, the four F-35As at the base are supporting maintenance training.

Once flights begin at Eglin, officials plan to conduct an operational utility evaluation (OUE), which will provide professional military testers access to the aircraft. Training operations will begin only after Rice gives a nod after reviewing the OUE data. The OUE will be executed using the 1A software release. Though not a go-to-war version, this software allows for the two-ship operations and basic flight activities.

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin is continuing work on later software releases. One of five milestones that can earn the company an award fee this year is the start of training with the Block IB software. Burbage says it is flying on test aircraft; this software introduces multi-level security.

Financial performance is being closely watched by the investor community; then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates last year yanked more than $600 million in potential award fees from the development contract after poor progress. Company officials earned only $7 million of $35 million in available awards last year, and they are hoping to improve that performance this year.