SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas — The Air Force has bolstered its aerial fighting capabilities with aircraft like the F-35A Lightning II, and now it’s time to get young student pilots excited about flying fifth-generation jet fighters.
Combat pilots from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., made a stop here Jan. 11, 2019, to give students of the 80th Flying Training Wing’s Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program and up-close look at the sleek one-seater jet as well as talk about some of its unique features and how the Air Force is deploying it now and into the future. It was part of a five-day road tour that included stops at Sheppard; Laughlin AFB, Texas; and Columbus AFB, Miss. A stop at Vance Air Force Base last Friday was canceled.
“Really, big picture, we’re just trying to get people excited to fly fighters and bring a fifth-gen fighter here for everyone to see,” said Capt. Jeremy Devlin, an F-35 pilot with the 58th Fighter Squadron. “It’s not too often students get to see them.”
After the arrival of the F-35s, ENJJPT students and staff were able to walk around the aircraft as its pilots spoke about the different nuances of the Lightning II. The pilots then provided capability briefings to students followed by question and answer periods.
Devlin, who flew F-16 Fighting Falcons for 2 ½ years before transitioning to the Lightning II more than a year ago, said fifth-generation aircraft often stir excitement among the flying community because of the unknowns that have yet to be discovered. Although the “switchology,” seating position and other aspects of the F-35 are similar to the F-16, for example, the way the aircraft flies and the types of missions it’s used for presents a new and exciting challenge.
Just as ENJJPT is unique in that it is an organization comprised of 14 NATO partners that produces combat pilots for the Alliance, the F-35 is a product of international cooperation, according to an Air Combat Command fact sheet.
“With nine countries involved in its development (United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Australia), the F-35 represents a new model of international cooperation, ensuring U.S. and coalition partner security well into the 21st century. The F-35 also brings together strategic international partnerships, providing affordability by reducing redundant research and development and providing access to technology around the world.”
It’s not just the pilots sitting behind the flight controls that get excited about the F-35. Those who maintain the sleek, multimillion dollar aircraft such as crew chiefs, avionics, hydraulics, propulsion and other specialties trained by the 82nd Training Wing here at Sheppard are equally pumped up to see and touch the single aircraft that will replace two reliable but old aircraft — the F-16 and A-10.
Airman 1st Class John Rose will have the benefit of starting out on the F-35 from the get go. The 365th Training Squadron student said he isn’t a natural “gearhead,” but the excitement of working on the aircraft has grown as his training has progressed.
Seeing the aircraft and talking with its maintainers, though, helps put a little more reality to what he’s been doing thus far.
“I knew it was an impressive aircraft, but seeing it in person, it looks even more amazing. The technology is unbelievable,” he said. “Just from the 10 minutes so far that I’ve spent with the maintainer from Eglin, I’ve already gained a lot of valuable information. That brings the book knowledge to life.”
Staff Sgt. Thomas Garrity, an F-35 avionics technician with the 33rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, said he is proud to be part of the tour and experience the excitement the host bases show when the aircraft arrive. That includes, in Sheppard’s case, airmen in training who are in the processing of learning how to maintain the multirole fighter.
He said he began his Air Force career at Sheppard as a C-130 Hercules avionics student. After being stationed at Little Rock AFB, Ark., for three years, he moved to Eglin and cross trained into F-35 avionics.
“They are vastly different, but the knowledge transfers over,” he said of the different airframes. “It made the transition very easy. The knowledge that you learn coming through maintenance training, the knowledge transfers very smoothly.”
The road tour wrapped up Jan. 14 at Columbus AFB.