The appearance of the F-35A at Avalon was a chance for Australians to see the future in the ‘flesh’.
It was a privilege for test pilot SQNLDR David Bell to touch down at the Australian International Airshow on March 3 in one of the first two F-35A aircraft to debut in Australia.
SQNLDR Bell said it was a great opportunity to show the Australian public that the F-35A wasn’t just on paper.
“It’s flying and there are now about 200 of them. It was great to talk to people about how the jets are performing and our impressions of it,” SQNLDR Bell said.
“Most people wanted to know how the F-35A compared to the Hornet and Super Hornet and there were some who asked more pointed questions based on critical media reports.
“It was good to be able to talk to them and provide perspective on reports that weren’t correct or were completely out of context. Everybody was positive and happy to see the F-35 fly.”
The 16,000 kilometre trip to Australia via Hawaii and Guam for WGCDR Andrew Jackson in A35-001 and SQNLDR Bell in A35-002 took about 20 hours of flying.
They flew alongside an Air Force KC-30A multi-role tanker transport, which provided air-to-air refuelling about every 45 minutes.
The arrival of Australia’s two F-35As was a significant undertaking, with Air Force personnel in Canberra, Amberley, Williamtown and Avalon working closely with CASG, Lockheed Martin and the US Air Force (USAF).
CAF AIRMSHL Davies thanked everyone for their significant work.
“Many Australians don’t realise just how close our F-35A capability is to arriving in Australia permanently. To be able to bring the aircraft out to the airshow was a great opportunity to showcase this aircraft to the Australian public,” he said.
F-35A for the information age SQNLDR Bell, of the Air Combat Transition Office, is attached to the 61st Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix, Arizona.
He was posted to Arizona nearly two years ago, where he spent two months on a conversion course to transfer his pilot skills from the F/A-18 Classic Hornet to the F-35A.
Now he is an instructor with three other Australians at the multinational Pilot Training Centre, teaching Italian, Norwegian and USAF pilots to fly the F-35A.
SQNLDR Bell said the first difference for the pilots was the F-35A had only one seat.
“We spent a lot of time training in the simulator but the first solo flight on the new aircraft was a highlight of the conversion training,” he said.
“The main difference from the F/A18 is the sheer volume of information the jet collects. It presents it to the pilot in a usable fashion but we still need to know what’s important and when and how the information can be used to the best advantage.
“Because it’s a stealth aircraft the tactics we use are different to the Classic Hornet so getting across those and learning how to manage the information are the two biggest challenges.”
SQNLDR Bell said prioritisation was a core skill of flying any fighter.
“With the F-35A it’s very easy to stare down at the screens, because there’s so much information there and we get it at much longer ranges than we previously did. We need to force ourselves to look outside from time to time as well as attend to other priority tasks,” he said.
As Australia’s first instructors on the fifth-generation aircraft SQNLDR Bell and the other Australian pilots in the US will have important leadership and training roles as future instructors for the F-35A.
They will form the nucleus of instructional staff for training the initial cadre of Air Force pilots who will form the first F-35A squadron at RAAF Base Williamtown.
SQNLDR Bell is instructing about eight pilots at a time on five- to sixmonth courses at Luke Air Force Base.
“The classes overlap but there are about five or six classes a year who graduate as instructor pilots from the Pilot Training Centre,” he said.
“Some finish two months early and are posted to the 34th Fighter Squadron (the first F-35A unit in the USAF) at Hill Air Force Base in Utah.”
With its unparalleled sensors, network and stealth technology, the F-35A will meet Australia’s future air combat and strike needs, providing a networked force-multiplier effect in terms of situational awareness and combat effectiveness.
SQNLDR Bell said the big step forwards for Air Force was the information-gathering capability of the F-35A.
“It can also share the information with other aircraft, including the EA-18G Growler, P-8A Poseidon and the E-7A Wedgetail, as well as integrating with Navy and Army units,” he said.
“It means if someone sees something I can’t see they can share it with me and vice versa. Everybody’s level of situational awareness will increase as quality information is received in a timely fashion allowing us to make quick and better-informed decisions.
“The challenge I am looking forward to when we bring the jets back to Australia and put them through their paces is to make sure they can operate with our other platforms.”
More Australians will soon be learning to fly the jet in the US and maintainers and engineers are already learning new skills.
When the first F-35As begin to arrive in Australia permanently in 2018 they will be assigned to No. 3 Squadron at RAAF Base Williamtown.
Their initial task will be to ensure the logistics supply chain has been established to operate the aircraft on a daily basis, and to integrate the new aircraft into Air Force and the ADF.
By December 2020 the F-35A will have its initial operational capability with enough aircraft and pilot instructors to train all Australian pilots on home soil, as well as the ability to be employed in combat scenarios.
F-35A for the future The F-35A is part of Air Force’s evolution to a fifth-generation networked force.
Australia’s first F-35A pilot, SQNLDR Andrew Jackson, said it was easy to fall into the trap of thinking the F35 was just another aircraft.
“The shell of the aircraft gets it to the fight but it’s so much more than an F/A-18 Hornet replacement,” he said.
“We haven’t begun to scratch the surface of the F-35 capability. There’s more information, better information, faster information. It’s a real force multiplier.”
Australia’s F-35A chief engineer, WGCDR Vince Palmeri, was excited to see the aircraft fly.
“It’s such a capable aircraft and it will become even more capable in the future through its upgrade program,” he said.
“The aircraft itself is being built through low-rate initial production (LRIP). Our first two aircraft were in LRIP6 back in 2014 and our next eight aircraft will be in LRIP10 in 2018.
“This means the F-35A continues to advance as it’s built. As part of our purchase agreement our LRIP6 aircraft will be updated to LRIP10 standards before they arrive in Australia for their RAAF service.
“We are already planning for some of these hardware modifications, which will occur early next year.
“The upgrade will take about four months for each aircraft and will include upgrades to increase the aircraft’s resistance to lightning, providing an equivalent level of safety to other combat aircraft.”
It was the threat of thunderstorms that prevented the F-35As’ fly-over at Avalon on March 5.
WGCDR Palmeri said it was great to see the aircraft fly on Friday and Saturday, but due to the thunderstorm forecasts, “we didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks with safety on Sunday”.
Air Force also cancelled an F/A18F Super Hornet fly-past over Tamworth and Peak on the same day, due to the same weather forecast.
The F-35A deployment was exceptionally smooth with no technical issues throughout either of the 20-hour transit flights. The aircraft will also be upgraded with software modifications throughout its life.
“Our first two F-35A aircraft are currently using software Block 3i, which was loaded in September last year,” WGCDR Palmeri said.
“The next upgrade will be to the Block 3F software by the end of this year, which will provide further capability.”
Written by CPL Mark Doran and Leigh Watson