2,000th U.S. F-35 pilot graduates from Luke AFB

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Katelynn Jackson
  • 56th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

The 56th Fighter Wing graduated the 2,000th F-35 Lightning II pilot across the DoD, U.S. Air Force Maj. Christopher “Blade” Jeffers, April 17th, 2023, at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona.

This milestone marks a step forward for the Airmen at Luke in realizing its mission of training the world's greatest fighter pilots.

Since 1941, Luke AFB has graduated over 61,000 pilots, approximately 105 F-35 pilots and 188 F-16 pilots annually, accounting for 75 percent of the world's F-35 pilots. 

“Here at Luke, we don’t just take pride in the number of pilots we produce,” said Col. Keegan McLeese, 56th Fighter Wing vice commander. “We take great pride in the quality of our graduates, because they will be the ones who advance airpower for decades to come.”

Before flying the aircraft, pilots must undergo 192 hours of academic and simulator-based training. Fifty hours of flying are needed to complete the course and nearly half are accredited through the F-35 Full Mission Simulator, an immersive technology designed to replicate the hardware of the F-35. 

“The simulator was very close to the airplane,” said Jeffers. “It is about as realistic as you can get.”

Jeffers flew the F-16 from 2014 to 2022 with over 1,600 flight hours prior to attending the Transition Course (TX) for the F-35. Jeffers became certified to fly the F-35 while assigned to the 62nd Fighter Squadron.

“The most rewarding part of training is just seeing what I can do now in the F-35 compared to the F-16,” said Jeffers. “The situational awareness and capabilities that the F-35 offers, would take multiple F-16s.” 

The F-35A is the U.S. Air Force’s latest fifth generation fighter, with over 8 million lines of three-tiered code making up the flying systems.

“The biggest differences in the fifth-generation aircraft and the F-16 is stealth,” said Jeffers. “It increases the survival rate in missions. The next is sensor fusion. The F-16 can give you a lot of information, but you as the pilot have to decipher what is and isn’t important. Whereas, the F-35 knows what you want and increases battlespace awareness.”

In addition to re-enforcing national security, the F-35 serves as a vessel for strengthening global partnerships. Luke AFB currently upholds training partnerships with Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Singapore and Denmark. 

“I had the opportunity to train with foreign partners here at Luke,” said Jeffers. “It was a really good experience to train with them and see the motivation and drive they had to learn and improve.”

Upon completing 3 ½ months of flight training accompanied by 50 hours of flying, TX pilots like Jeffers are then trained as instructors in instructor upgrade training. Jeffers will carry out the remaining three years of his contract as an F-35 instructor pilot at Luke AFB. 

“I see myself flying the F-35 here at Luke until I can retire,” said Jeffers.

It took 14 years from the F-35’s introduction in 2006 to achieve 1,000 trained fighter pilots in 2020. Three years later the Department of Defense has doubled that number.

It’s Jeffers’ belief that with the ever-evolving and innovative nature of the Air Force, this rate of force growth will continue. 

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we jump to 6,000 pilots in a fraction of the time it took to get to 2,000,” said Jeffers. “The Air Force is always improving and growing.”

As the F-16 approaches the end of its training mission at Luke AFB, a force of 2,000 trained F-35 fighter pilots strengthens the aircraft’s role in modern warfare.

“We will be flying the F-35 for years to come, and then the next generation of fighter aircraft will come along,” said Jeffers. “But I think the F-35 will be around for the next generation of aspiring fighter pilots.”

Luke AFB is fully committed to continuing quality F-35 training in support of its mission. Producing combat-ready Airmen that train alongside high-performance, multi-role aircraft strengthens combat readiness.