An Update on the F-35 at Eglin AFB: “I was just flying.”


2012-09-04 By Robbin Laird

I had the opportunity to visit the 33rd Fighter Wing on August 24, 2012.

I first visited the wing in January 2010, and much of what I saw this month was aspirational in January 2010.  Seeing pilots and maintainers populating classrooms, and planes on the tarmac, flying or in hangers was a vindication of all of the work of the folks preparing for the training process for the new aircraft.

It also turned out to be the day the 199th and 200th sorties were flown by F-35 pilots.

(The video below shows the return of the F-35 and its pilot after the 200th sortie).

200th Sortie Pilot from on Vimeo.

Fortunately, the PAO with the Fighter Wing, Major Karen Roganov, USAF, met me early, and rushed us out to the flight line to watch the sorties unfold.  And I had the unexpected pleasure of informing the pilot of the 200th sortie, “OD” Bachmann, that he had just flown the 200th sortie.

Although there has been press coverage of this development, when we informed, “OD” of what he had done, he simply said: “Really.  I was just flying.”

Col. Tomassetti, the Deputy 33rd Fighter Wing Commander, commented during my visit “we are doing sortie rates on single days that are equivalent to what we did in single weeks earlier this summer.”

“OD” Bachmann after flying the 200th sortie of the F-35 at Eglin.

I had the opportunity to interview several of the pilots and maintainers at the Wing and those interviews will appear in the coming weeks.

Two key interviews were with some of the most notable F-35 pilots.

The first was with Col. Tomassetti, the Deputy Wing Commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing.  And over the years, I have had the chance to talk frequently with Tomassetti who has been a constant thread of providing understanding of the promise and challenges of standing up the new approach and facilities at Eglin for the joint and coalition aircraft.

The promise of the vision Col. Tomassetti presented in 2010 was on the road to becoming reality in 2012.

The video below provides a summary of some of the key points from his interview during this visit.

Col. Tomassetti on the Progress in F-35 Training from on Vimeo.

Some of the highlights of this video portion of the interview are as follows:

“We have 19 F-35s at Eglin; in the beginning we were happy to fly 2-3 sorties per week…we are now scheduling 8 sorties per day.”

The Col. discussed as well the first upgrades of the planes.  The upgrade from Block 1A aircraft to Block 1B airplanes, and these “are airplanes where we are now moving into training for combat capabilities.”

The Col. also discussed the often-misunderstood software issue on the F-35.  Notably, the F-35 software works effectively as the plane is easy to fly.

“The understanding of what it takes to make a three type aircraft like this easy to fly is no small achievement.”

The Col. as the first pilot of the experimental aircraft that would become the F-35B underscored that it “has taken 60 years to get the creation of a STOVL aircraft with the same capabilities as its more conventional type of combat aircraft.”

“A lot of years of effort have gone into this achievement.”

For example, the Harrier when deployed requires constant requalification on station.  That will not be necessary with the deployed F-35B.

He ended by reflecting on his lifetime commitment to such innovation.

A second key interview was with Lt. Col. Berke.

Berke is as readers of Second Line of Defense know was the USMC pilot of the F-35 who was featured in our recent Joint Forces Quarterly piece on the F-35.

He has accumulated over 2800 flight in hours in the F/A-18, F-16, and F-22.  And Berke provided us with by far the best interview on the F-22 and how it affects the pilot and his role.

He currently is commander of the VMFAT-501, which is named for the famous Warlord squadron.  The squadron has assumed the lineage of VMFA-451, which was originally known as the “Blue Devils” and saw action during World War II and Operation Desert Storm. They were decommissioned on January 31, 1997.

Berke is a unique pilot with accumulated F-22 and F-35 flight experience.

In this video clip from the interview, he discusses the two planes and the impact of the F-35 on the USN-USMC team approach to innovation and change.

Lt Col Berke August 24 2012 from on Vimeo.

Berke highlighted the importance of the pilot interface and the role of the helmet as part of the pilot to leverage Situational Awareness in a historically unprecedented way.

Of course, on Second Line of Defense, we have highlighted the role of the pilot interface, and the cockpit as central discriminators for the F-35.  And we interviewed one of the “fathers” of this effort, Mike Skaff from Lockheed Martin.

“This airplane is transformational.  For the first time, you have a single platform that covers a spectrum of missions which exceeds what a number of aircraft now deliver to the USMC in operations.”

The Lt. Col. compared his experience as a JTAC with what he expects from the F-35 for the ground forces.

“It will be difficult to learn what this aircraft will bring to operations, but the USMC is oriented towards such a learning process.”

As our colleague Ed Timperlake, a former member of the squadron, add that USMC history will enhance the commitment of Marines to making the kind of innovation Berke discussed reality

Marines, because of our size, fight at the Squadron level-the legacy of the Warlords is now in capable hands for the next generation to write their saga. And going back in history, we did everything asked of us.  I am sure this generation will do so as well.

The patch worn by the members of VMFAT-501 symbolizes the blend of historical accomplishment and future achievements of the Warlords.

And the squadron will bring the Warlord spirit to both the joint and coalition pilots training at Eglin.

For a look at the Warlords historical legacy upon which the F-35 squadron will draw see the following video.

(The featured image shows the 199th and 200th Sortie in flight at Eglin on August 24, 2012 and is credited to Second Line of Defense.)