A U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter is seen at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. (Samuel King Jr. / U.S. Air Force)
Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has not had the easiest gestation, but it is at last starting to reach the men and women who will ultimately fly and maintain them.
Initial production examples of the fifth-generation fighter are now arriving at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., where the F-35 Integrated Training Center (ITC) has opened its doors to train initial groups of personnel. April marked the arrival of the first Lockheed-built Full Mission Simulator at Eglin, though full-scale training is scheduled to start in the fall. Pilots and maintenance instructors are already using maintenance, desktop and mission trainers in small-group training there.
The Eglin simulator incorporates a 360-degree visual display and a reconfigurable cockpit that can simulate all three variants: the conventional F-35A for the U.S. Air Force, the F-35B short-takeoff/vertical-landing variant for the Marine Corps and the carrier-capable F-35C for the Navy.
Col. Arthur Tomassetti, vice commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing, has already hailed the new simulators’ capabilities as “revolutionary.”
Around 120 instructors — provided by the U.S. services and Lockheed Martin Global Training and Logistics — will train about 100 pilots plus 2,200 maintenance students annually. Besides the three U.S. services, at least eight other nations that have purchased the F-35 will send pilots and ground crews to Eglin. The first overseas nations to begin training will be the U.K. and Netherlands, whose personnel will arrive later this year.
Home to a full spectrum of advanced courseware and technology, the ITC includes electronic classrooms, Pilot Training Aids, Full Mission Simulators and the aircraft themselves. In the pilots’ simulators, actual F-35 software is used to give students the most realistic experience possible and to allow software upgrades in step with F-35 development.
At Eglin’s F-35 Academic Training Center (ATC), students work with computer simulators that provide near-realistic interaction with the F-35, aided by a digital avatar, Elgin spokeswoman Maj. Karen Roganov said in an Air Force news release. Additional virtual training is provided on life-size mock-ups of F-35 components.
All students go through almost identical training in their first week, with each following procedures in checking out virtual tools, reading maintenance checklists, and individually performing tasks. They then split up into their specific disciplines to train virtually at the ATC. Finally, they move out to the operational side of the 33rd Fighter Wing’s site at Eglin, where the initial production F-35s are housed with each service’s flying squadron. This gives them the opportunity to put what they have learned into practice on real aircraft.
Lockheed Martin says courseware is built around a flexible modular design, allowing trainees from different services to learn the ropes without the creation of multiple training suites of variant-specific hardware and software.
With spiraling costs an underlying feature of the F-35’s protracted development, the training system has adopted existing and commercial-off-the-shelf software to improve affordability.
Ground Crew Training
Major maintenance training systems will include electronic classrooms and the actual aircraft, plus an Aircraft Systems Maintenance Trainer, weapons load trainer, and an ejection seat maintenance trainer.
In March, about 100 maintenance students from the three U.S. services began the inaugural classes at the ATC, and just a month later eight basic familiarization courses were operating. Today, the first groups of ground crew students have completed their initial F-35 courses in fields such as structures, avionics and weapons. Crew chiefs assigned to the 33rd Fighter Wing have already gained familiarization with flight line tasks and performed duties out on the line associated with generating sorties.
“This is hugely significant for all services because we are getting our maintainers prepped for when we are fully stood-up for F-35 training in the near future,” Col. Andrew Toth, who commands the 33rd Fighter Wing CO, said in an Air Force news release.
Unsurprisingly, the first courses are populated by experienced maintenance personnel; brand-new maintenance students should arrive at the ATC in early 2014.
As Eglin’s ITC is the first Department of Defense-integrated training center for the aircraft, it will form the template for training in different nations around the globe. While the joint training environment at Eglin is the first of its type, it also prepares pilots and ground crews for an increasingly common mode of warfighting: working in joint and coalition situations.
The F-35 will be notable for the emphasis placed on simulators as a new generation of pilots goes through the training process.
“The future of operational training is in modeling and simulation,” said Dan Bakke of the U.S. Air Force Agency for Modeling and Simulation. “The Fifth-generation aircraft that we have in the Air Force today and will have in the near future — the F-35 — cannot train in realistic conditions anywhere but in the sim.”
The benefits of simulation are obvious and well-known: “You can train for anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice without ever leaving your home base. And you can do it 10 times a day.” And with cost underpinning discussions of technology and training, live exercises may have to take a back seat to simulation.
“We, the collective United States of America, can no longer afford to pay $90,000 an hour to fly an aircraft in live training,” Bakke said.
Eglin will be the master F-35 training base for the foreseeable future. Operational and continuation pilot training is planned at MCAS Yuma, Ariz., for the Marine Corps’ F-35B STOVL version, although the timeframe for this has not yet been finalized.
Some of the work on live-virtual-constructive (LVC) training technology at Luke AFB, while initially slated to train F-16 pilots once Air Education and Training Command gives its seal of approval, could be adapted to provide similar training for the F-35 force.
Ground-based instructors could manage computer-generated adversaries that would appear on the F-35s’ sensors and maneuver against them, using realistic air combat tactics. Of course, this would only work for Beyond Visual Range engagements, and the instructors would have to ensure that the ‘bad guys’ never got within visual range of the F-35 pilots.
Apart from reducing the high costs involved in using real F-35s for training, LVC training may almost become a necessity for BVR sorties.
This is because the F-35’s capabilities outstrip those of older fighters by such a wide margin that any aerial combat exercise tends to become academic. There are simply not enough high-quality opponents to train against. Virtual enemies would provide F-35 pilots with adversaries to make up the shortfall.
For visual range combat, the F-35s are likely to get dogfighting experience against Aggressor squadrons, where the aircraft’s stealthy characteristics and advanced systems do not tip the balance quite so heavily against opponents.