The Software Upgradeable Aircraft Takes to the Skies: Col Jost Explains the Process


2013-07-03 During a visit to the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin AFB in June 2013, Second Line of Defense and Inside the Air Force sat down with Col. Jost to discuss the roll out of training of pilots for the F-35A.

Col. Jost is Commander, 33d Operations Group, Air Force Education and Training Command, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

It is obvious from discussions with USMC pilots as well as USAF pilots that the F-35 is very good plane to fly. 

This fly by wire plane has clearly passed the tests on flyability.

What is happening now is a roll out of the various upgrades to the software towards the IOC point where a core combat aircraft will be deployed, initially to the Pacific.

This means that as the test pilots and process checks the box on a capability inherent in the software, then it becomes part of the training process. 

This has been seen most recently with regard to air tanking where Edwards certified air tanking for the F-35As and then the team at Eglin then trained the pilots in the process.

A great example of that is the air refueling that we recently had lifted where they had completed all those test points at Edwards.  And then, we got the clearance to do air refueling here at Eglin.  And about a month ago, we were able to get 11 of our 13 instructors at that time qualified at one week on air refueling. 

We had the tanker scheduled for the duration of the week, and we were able to get 11 of them across the boom with appropriate supervision to do the initial qualifications.

Throughout the interview, Jost described the process of lifting restrictions on the aircraft, checking software boxes and then including those new capabilities within the training process.  What he was describing was the run-up to the IOC aircraft, but was also describing the learning curve that the software upgradeable aircraft would follow throughout its life in many respects.

He also highlighted the combat learning process, which in the USMC goes from Eglin, to Yuma and then will go out to the squadrons to be deployed in the Pacific.  With regard to the USAF, the process will be from Eglin, to Nellis and Edwards and then to the deployed squadrons.

Eglin is responsible for the F-35A pilot training and Nellis for combat tactics, but obviously this will be highly interactive as tactics shapes software development, which in turn will shape training.

The Air Force is a learning environment; we are a learning organization.  And it’s all about excellence.  And that’s what the institution especially, it will be testing and us basically doing that initially.  But the weapons school is our center of tactical excellence.  And it’ll get there, just like we did with the F-22.

Jost added that:

We already have all these processes in place and it’s a learning environment. When we stand up the F-35 weapons school eventually, they are the key piece to that, that’s where we send our top instructors to learn the latest and greatest. The 461st out at Nellis is responsible for collecting operational data, training data, test data, and collating that into current tactics techniques and procedures, which every two years is a requirement that our manuals to get rewritten so that we are continuously refreshing what we’re learning.

The informal exchange of information among the USMC, the USAF and USN personnel involved in the training process is an important incubator for change as well.  Only the USAF has experience with low observable aircraft, but the USAF personnel is working informally with USN and USMC personnel to explain the nature of such aircraft as well.

We have excellent relationships with both 101 and 501 where we talk about the learning organization.  We communicate everything from pilot evaluation to weapons and tactics, to safety issues across those three units so that we collectively learn from each other.  And that is happening on a daily basis, and that’s the kind of support that we do directly provide for them.  And that’s a very good relationship.

Another interesting issue which came up in the discussion was working out the relationship over time between the F-22 and the F-35, a process which has not started formally but informally they are already sharing flight space in Florida, which anticipates what will happen later in the skies over Nevada and California.

Jost also emphasized the importance of a declared IOC for the aircraft as providing “a stake in the ground” which demands greater fidelity from the training process.

There is a sense of urgency and it’s across the community. I trust General Hostage, and he owns the IOC.  So when we make that target date in 2016 and he says we’re IOC, that means those aircraft are ready to go to war because we have trained pilots, combat capable aircraft that are going to be deployable to go execute whatever mission they’re asked to go do. 

From the training side of the house, Jost underscored what is his focus and core task.

Our piece of that is the fact that we need to continue our training pipeline.  And the guidance from our leadership here in AETC, air education training command, is that we will continue to produce pilots.  Ultimately, before we get to that IOC date we will have trained enough pilots so that we can populate the first ops unit with the 20 pilots required for the squadron.

In these photos provided by the 33rd Fighter Wing, F-35As are being tanked by a KC-135.  The photos were shot from the tanker during the tanking operation. 

[slidepress gallery=’the-f-35-tanking-and-the-fleet’]


Gabe Starosta, Inside the Air Force 

From June 21, 2013 edition

Jost expressed support for the F-35 program’s plan to incrementally release new software versions to the field so that operators and maintainers can get accustomed to new systems in a step-by-step process. 

Still, the wing had planned for only instructor pilots to be allowed to fly the Block 2A F-35s until the fall with students continuing to fly 1B aircraft until that time, but Jost said 33 FW leadership is reconsidering that arrangement. 

“The 2A software that we got with these aircraft has very limited capability above what’s already in the Block 1B, so the intent is all of our instructors can fly either aircraft,” Jost said. “They are essentially the same capability with some minor differences. I am initiating a request to headquarters to actually allow students to do the same thing since the differences are so minor right now.” 

The version of Block 2A being operated at Eglin AFB does allow pilots to turn on some new mission systems, like the Distributed Aperture System. But Jost acknowledged that the DAS is not very useful in training today because it is very effective at night, when the 33 FW cannot fly, or when its video feed can be shown on the F-35’s helmet-mounted display. For now, the DAS imagery can only be displayed on cockpit screens, which will give pilots the chance to get familiar with their layout and appearance. 

Future, more finely tuned versions of Block 2A, plus more advanced software blocks with actual warfighting capability, will deliver a slew of new options for employment of the aircraft. Smith (Lt. Col. Eric Smith, (the commander of the 33rd Operations Support Squadron), a former test and A-10 pilot, said he is most excited to operate a data link that will let F-35s pass information to one another in flight, to utilize the JSF helmet’s full capabilities, and to actually fire weapons — which the program has only just begun attempting in a test setting. 

A complete Block 2A software package should let pilots expand their skill sets by simulating both internal and external weapons, rather than only internal; simulating gun rounds for a strafing-type air-to-ground mission; and using the DAS, according to Col. Andrew Toth, the wing’s former commander. Canterbury formerly took charge of the 33 FW from Toth earlier this month.

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