F-35 mission continues to evolve

LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- As the world's premiere F-35 training base, Luke Air Force Base is constantly growing and improving to provide state-of-the-art training for F-35 Lightning ll pilots and maintainers.

The F-35 is an aircraft with an international footprint unlike any other in history. Currently, Luke has two F-35 squadrons but will eventually be home to six squadrons, all housing partner nations.

The 61st Fighter Squadron became fully operational in June and the 62nd Fighter Squadron received its first primarily assigned aircraft in August.

"The 61st FS is up, running and fully operational," said Lt. Col. David Lercher, 56th Fighter Wing F-35 division chief. "In order to be considered fully operational the squadron must have 24 primarily assigned aircraft."

At the moment, the 61st FS is home to two Australian jets and will receive many more.
"The Australians will have 12 jets here by the middle of 2019," Lercher said.

The 62nd FS is on track to have eight F-35s by the end of 2015 and be fully operational by the end of 2017. They will be home to Norwegian and Italian jets.

"The two Norwegian jets are expected to arrive before the end of the year," Lercher said. "We should expect the first Italian jets to arrive this spring. Eventually, the 62nd FS will have seven Norwegian jets and five Italian jets."

Construction on the 63rd Fighter Squadron is in the works and should be open by the end of 2016.

"The 63rd should get their first airplane by March of 2017," Lercher said. "Turkey will eventually flow into the squadron with their first aircraft arriving mid-2018."

Luke should expect the fourth squadron, which includes the Netherlands and Denmark,  early 2019. The fifth squadron will be home to Canada and also open in 2019. The sixth, and final, squadron will open in 2022.

"Luke will eventually be home to seven partner nation pilots and aircraft and house a total of 144 F-35s," Lercher said.

As advanced as the F-35 is, it still doesn't fly itself.

The F-35 Lightning II Academic Training Center will welcome two Italian student pilots, two Norwegian student pilots and a U.S.Marine Corps student pilot Sept. 21. The Marine is here as part of an inter-service pilot exchange program. The goal of the program is to gain a better understanding and appreciation of each service's capabilities and limitations.

A Norwegian student pilot will be the first at Luke to be issued the Generation 3 Helmet-Mounted Display System. Eventually all F-35 pilots will transition to the new helmet. The helmet will be created and issued at the new Luke Pilot Fit Facility.
The PFF opened in March and is operated by Lockheed Martin. All Luke F-35 student pilots receive gear from the PFF and that gear is then used indefinitely, regardless of the service or country the pilot belongs to.

"All the pilots who are flying the F-35 are all wearing the exact same gear," said Keith Geltz,  Survitec Group senior field engineer. "The only difference is the number of items each service or country requests."

Some changes are obvious and involve bright orange construction, while other changes are more behind the scenes. Recently the first nine F-35s to arrive at Luke were updated with software to match the more recent aircraft.

"The update was done to give the first aircraft essentially the same capabilities as the rest of the newer jets," said Leslie Flores, Lockheed Martin field support engineer.
Overall, Luke, just like the aircraft it supports, will continue to change.

"The F-35 is a new weapons system, so it's constantly evolving and improving," Lercher said. "I've been working this program for over two years and things are always changing for the better."