Visiting the 33rd Fighter Wing: An Overview and Update on the F-35 Program


2013-09-29  By Robbin Laird

On September 4th Secretary Wynne visited the 33rd Fighter Wing for an update on the F-35 program as seen from the training facility.  Ed Timperlake and I accompanied him and added some meetings of our own, notably with maintainers and USMC squadron leaders.

We have published a number of looks at the stay of play at Eglin and the roll out of the F-35 fleet as seen from the perspective of the USAF, USMC and USAF.

Secretary Wynne provided an overview on the process as he saw it during his visit.

The Training Has Reached Critical Mass 

This schoolhouse is in full swing; and ready to expand its throughput to match the needs of the services. 

The F-35 pilots realize that the old fighter culture must change due to the battle management capabilities of the F-35.  

In teaching fighter characteristics, this must be softly delivered, as the capability for first look, first kill is expected. But the need to be first in and last out of the battlespace will be key to the future fight.  All agreed that setting expectations is a leader’s role, and needs to start in proficiency training, and be re-emphasized along the way to a Joint Fighter Exercise.

The Wynne-Berke Dialogue on 5th Generation Aircraft and Their Impact

Ed Timperlake, Mike Wynne and Karen Roganov, the 33rd FW PAO in front of the Ready Room for the Warlords. Credit Photo: SLD
Ed Timperlake, Mike Wynne and Karen Roganov, the 33rd FW PAO in front of the Ready Room for the Warlords. Credit Photo: SLD 

A highlight of the visit was the opportunity to bring Lt. Col. Berke together with Secretary Wynne together to discuss 5th generation aircraft and the way ahead with regard to the impact of these aircraft on the evolution of concepts of operations.  Wynne as Secretary of the USAF together with the Chief of Staff of the Air Force led an effort to put non-USAF pilots into an F-22 to jump start USAF thinking and to gain better joint force understanding the transition.

Lt. Col. Berke was a key player in the effort, as a USMC pilot, he went to Nellis to train on the F-22.  Lt. Col. Berke is now the F-35B squadron commander for the USMC at the 33rd FW, and is the only F-22 and F-35 pilot in existence.  His background is truly unique.

The meeting at Eglin was the first time that the formulator of the 5th generation aircraft concept had met Lt. Col. Berke and provided them with an historic opportunity to look backwards, and more importantly forward to the evolving impact of the new aircraft on combat.

Preparing for IOC for the USMC Aircraft and the Roll Out to Japan

A highlight for us was the chance to talk with the USMC pilots in the ready room of the USMC fighter squadron at Eglin.

We met with Lt. Col. Gillette who currently is the X0 of the Squadron and in transition with the jet to Yuma as the CO of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 and then on to Japan with the squadron.

We discussed with Gillette the roll out of the aircraft from Eglin, to Yuma and then to Japan.

The focus was upon defining what is an initial operational capability squadron and what one can expect from that IOC squadron in Japan and its impact.

Additional Topics of Focus

We were able to address a number of other developments as seen from the pilots and maintainers at the 33rd Fighter Wing.

We were able to discuss with the USN, the process of rolling out the F-35 C and highlighted the importance of the JOINT aspect of the JSF to the evolution of naval aviation.

We discussed with a weapons support Marine, how the USMC was leveraging its Harrier experience to prepare the F-35B for battle.

We were able to get an update on low observable maintenance of the F-35, which is the first industrial based LO aircraft built to date.

The LO maintainers emphasized that the heritage experience of the USAF from legacy platforms was being leveraged and improvements were then being proliferated to the services new to LO maintenance, the USMC and the USN.

They also emphasized the considerably greater robustness of the LO system on the F-35 compared to the F-22, and prior systems.

In a wide ranging discussion in the ready room of VMFAT501with Lt. Col. Steve Gillette and Major Michael Rountree, Major Rountree discussed how the Harrier has been used the flexibility which the jet brings to MAGTF operations.

He focused on how the F-35B would encompass the best of this experience.

During his presentation to the Wing, Secretary Wynne provided a cogent answer to the frequently asked question about concurrency and its role in the program

Re-Thinking the Con-ops

Although it was at the beginning of the visit, we will conclude with Secretary Wynne’s observations to the wing about what comes next, namely training to operate the F-35 as a fleet and its impact on airpower.

A key element of the Wynne perspective was on the necessity to rethink the shooter-sensor relationship.  “We are trained as pilots to shoot first and react afterwords.

With the F-35 you are setting up the battlespace within which others will more often than you carry out the strike missions.  This is a relearning of habits.”

He added to the leadership of the wing:

“I reach back into my Army training and this is like scouts in the old days.  And you send the scout out or the coast watcher from World War II Australia and the last thing that you want to actually happen to you is to engage the enemy.  Because once you expose yourself and engage the enemy, your survival tends to go down fairly dramatically.

This is the kind of thing that I don’t know how to quite teach because when we come into fighter pilot nuance.

Finding the enemy, fixing the enemy, and destroying him is a fleet task, not the individual aircraft or squadron. What’s going to happen now is we’re going to go up there and find the enemy, and assign it away.”

This affects training because we now need to “train pilots to think from the standpoint of command and control of the ground commander.”

Wynne suggested that the training approach would need to modified as the training became more advanced.

“How do you begin to start the process so that when they get to advanced pilot training that they really understand that one of the things that they’re going to have to learn is this core syllabus is going to take them into a command-and-control ops, rather than that of the traditional fighter pilot.”