EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — One of the busiest F-35 Joint Strike Fighter training units is hoping the U.S. Air Force can help relieve some of the pressures of training student pilots with ineffective resources.
The 33rd Fighter Wing, the leading training wing for F-35 student pilots, hopes it will receive additional F-35A aircraft, along with considerable upgrades to its existing fleet, to keep up with training demands, said Col. Paul Moga, commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing here.
“Right now, production is king. We’ve got to find ways to solve this aircrew crisis, and our contribution to that is getting our students through the training program as quickly as possible,” Moga said, referring to the service’s ongoing pilot shortage.
Military.com sat down with Moga, head of the F-35A Lightning II flying program, during a trip accompanying Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson to the base.
“We’re the first Air Force wing to start doing what we call ‘hot swaps,'” Moga said.
The term refers to different student/instructor pairs swapping out for back-to-back flights in a single aircraft in order to save time and execute more sorties.
But lately it’s not enough.
“We are at the end of our rope as far as finding creative ways to generate more sorties in the same amount of daylight with the same aircraft, because you run the risk [of overunning the fleet and breaking it],” Moga said.
The 33rd maintains 25 F-35As. The U.S. Navy, which also has a presence on the base and sends pilots through the training pipeline here, keeps 8 F-35Cs on station.
The wing is authorized to have 59 aircraft.
“It stresses the system. Every single day we are maximum-performing in regards to the amount of student training that we do,” Moga said.
The sustainment of F-35s at Eglin is crucial to that training mission.
Although the F-35 is the Pentagon’s newest and most advanced aircraft to date, the oldest of the fleet resides at the Florida base. Moga said the planes, part of Lockheed Martin Corp.’s earliest low rate initial production batches, need the additional work.
“Everybody’s aware that that fleet is on life support right now, and they need to kind of crank up the machine a little bit if they plan on extending the utility of this fleet another five or 10 years,” said Moga, who also oversees the maintenance training units here.
The fifth-generation stealth plane arrived here in 2011 and made the 33rd Fighter Wing the first U.S. F-35 training unit. The first class of student pilots started training in 2013.
While Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, trains pilots in its “B course” program and flies more sorties, prospective pilots come to Eglin for its academic training center program.
Luke’s curriculum requires students to train for 8 months, more than double the time of pilots coming through training at Eglin. As a result, Eglin’s throughput outpaces Luke’s program even though it too only trains about six pilots at a time.
Moga said officials are trying to find ways to get more sorties out of the planes they have, but they are hopeful that additional F-35As can come to the base in the future to bulk up training for their students.
“Right now, just based on our availability and our mission capable rates, it’s just not possible,” Moga said.