America’s fifth-generation F-35 fighter has occupied the headlines largely for its technical progress, and rightly so; from weapons systems to radar technology, there’s a lot to write about. Particularly popular-- and not always positive-- are cost analyses, but these often gloss over a different kind of human cost: the grueling years of study and training required to pilot an advanced modern fighter like the F-35.
Putting a human face on the F-35 program is precisely the purpose of a recent string of small promotional videos, released by the 56th Fighter Wing garrisoned in Luke Air Force Base.
Their initial qualification video wastes no time in setting the tone for the level of commitment expected from prospective pilots: “only the best of the best get into the F-35 initial qualification course (IQC) at Luke Air Force Base, where aviators come to be a part of an elite group of fighter pilots.” Nor is this an empty boast: The F-35 Initial Qualification Training (IQT) requires the completion of 156 events, totaling 306 hours over the span of eight months.
Interestingly, F-35 instructors don’t see prior piloting experience as an advantage. Quite the contrary, explains 56th Training Squadron commander Matthew Hayden: “Pilots that are fresh out of pilot training have an advantage because since they have no fighter jet experience, they are able to better absorb what we teach them and don’t come with habits that more experienced fighter pilots may bring when learning a new platform.”
F-35 IQT begins with a heavy focus on coursework, consisting of academics and simulators. As students make their way through the training, they get more and more hands-on experience in piloting the F-35 through an increasingly difficult series of tasks.
“Each student flew at least 48 sorties totaling 77 hours,” said Lt. Col. Rhett Hierlmeier, the 61st FS commander, in a 2017 Air Force press release. “Starting with the basics of taking off and landing, continuing across the full spectrum mission sets, and culminating in our Capstone phase of high-end employment. Along the way, our students dropped inert and live laser-guided GBU-12s, refueled from a KC-135 day and night and flew low-altitude step-down training.”
The 61st Fighter Squadron made history when six of its pilots graduated the first F-35A Lightning II initial qualification course in 2017. As the US Air Force explores prospective updates and modifications the F-35 IQT curriculum over the coming years, this first batch of graduates is sure to be used a performance bellwether.
Notwithstanding recent, often quite salient criticisms from analysts and pundits, the graduates gave gleaming endorsements of the F-35. “It’s an absolute blast. I love flying the F-35-- it’s super fast, super powerful, just an absolutely incredible experience.” This is consistent with the prevailing sentiment of past trainees, 31 of whom were interviewed in a recent Heritage Foundation report.
Lockheed Martin and the US Air Force have been hard at work over the past few years to present a positive PR image for the F-35. The new F-35 Flight Demonstration team is spearheading these efforts, with Capt. Andrew Olson recently offering a small preview of what to expect from the F-35’s redesigned performance routine in 2019.