Fortune has graced us with time,” says Col. David Hlatky, commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin AFB, Florida, which is the F-35 multinational pilot and maintenance schoolhouse.
Time has been on the training wing’s side, as prime contractor Lockheed Martin struggles to work through flight trials and provide aircraft for training at the base. The first aircraft were expected there last year, when the wing was working to what Hlatky acknowledges was an aggressive schedule to start flight training last fall. “This is a better glide path,” Hlatky says of a wing startup plan that was revised in accordance with the Pentagon’s decision to restructure the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program.
While working to resolve technical problems and ramp up flight-testing, Lockheed Martin is also having to dedicate significant attention to fixing persistent problems with the visor-mounted helmet display system, made by Vision Systems International (VSI—a Rockwell Collins/Elbit Systems joint venture). Lockheed Martin on March 1 issued a draft specification for proposals for an alternate helmet-mounted display system that makes use of commercial, off-the-shelf night-vision goggles, according to John Kent, a Lockheed spokesman. A final request for proposals is expected by the end of the month, and a selection by the end of June. Candidates include BAE Systems, Gentex and VSI, Kent says.
Continuing problems on the helmet-mounted display system include jitter in the data that appear on the visor and problems with the night-vision capability. The wing at Eglin is making preparations for flight training with the VSI system; officials there have already begun custom-molding helmets for early instructor pilots. Should VSI fail to execute fixes, it is unclear how quickly an alternate design can be fed into the training wing’s operations.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. C.D. Moore, deputy JSF program manager, says that the alternate helmet system has resources in the program plan, so funding is not an issue at this time.
Meanwhile, AF 8, a conventional, takeoff-and-landing (CTOL) production version, is expected to arrive at Eglin as early as May with as many as five additional aircraft by September, when the wing is slated to be ready for pilot training.
In the interim, the F-35s delivered to Eglin will be used for maintainer training. Moore says program officials are looking at the option of potentially conducting some limited flight-training operations prior to September. However, a lot is riding on how much of the flight envelope is cleared by the flight-test program.
Leading up to September, AF 6 and AF 7, instrumented CTOL versions that were to go to Eglin but were diverted to support flight trials at Edwards AFB, Calif., will undergo a series of what Moore calls “maturity flights.” He says these are needed prior to a brief operational assessment so officials can be confident there will be no “seams” when the aircraft are cleared for flight training at Eglin. “Until I get the maturity stuff from Edwards, we are going to turn . . . aircraft over to the maintainers” for training at Eglin, Moore said March 1.
In the meantime, the wing is following a traditional “walk, crawl, run” path, Hlatky says, that began last month with the use of four Lockheed Martin F-16s pulled from Luke AFB, Texas. They are surrogates for the wing to restart flight operations and maintain pilot proficiency while waiting for delivery of its first F-35s. “We get to teach this wing to fly all over again,” Hlatky says. “This wing hadn’t turned a wheel in months.” It formerly operated Boeing F-15s.
The F-16s are currently being housed in shelters at the wing’s budding facility across from the Northwest Florida Regional Airport passenger terminal, which is located on the opposite side of the taxiway from Eglin’s operations.
The F-16s are slated for use at the 33rd Wing for one year, Hlatky says.
Meanwhile, the majority of the construction on the Academic Training Center—the size of six football fields—is complete. U.S. Marine Corps Col. Arthur Tomassetti, wing vice commander, says the first full-mission system trainer, a simulation-based device, is being installed; it takes about 90 days until it is operational. The wing is slated to receive eight, though there is space for 10.
The wing will operate 59 F-35s.
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