With an average of 106 takeoffs per day and an inventory of 138 F-16 Fighting Falcons, it would have been easy to not notice a few jets missing from the Luke Air Force Base flightline. Over the past two years Luke AFB Airmen have been supporting the F-35 mission at Eglin AFB, Fla.
According to Col. John Hanna, 56th Operations Group commander, the F-35 required a chase aircraft and the initial cadre of F-35 pilots needed to remain current and qualified in a fighter aircraft, and sending four F-16s fulfilled both needs.
“Two years ago the 33rd Fighter wing didn’t have aircraft assigned to them, so it was decided that Luke would support them with F-16s and the appropriate maintenance personnel,” Hanna said. “The requirement to stay current was removed. They acquired their own aircraft so our support was no longer needed, but over the past two years our Airmen have accomplished the mission with outstanding results.”
The positive impact made by Luke support was seen both on the fligthline and in the community with the following accomplishments:
- The F-16s enabled low-risk startup of F-35 flying operations in May 2012, leading to ready-for-training approval in December 2012.
- On-time completion of first F-35 conventional takeoff and landing block 1B course in March 2013
- Positive completion of the 33rd FW F-35 strategic communication plan
- Captured invaluable F-35 vehicle system and mission systems data for initial F-35 tactics, techniques and procedures manuals
- Executed successful honorary commander incentive program to help quell local concerns about the F-35’s noise footprint
Even after Eglin AFB began receiving a few F-35s, the F-16s were still required for a time.
“One example of how Luke Airmen helped accomplish the mission was if two F-35s were scheduled to fly (one instructor and one upgrading pilot) and the instructor’s jet had a problem, having the F-16s allowed the instructor to simply shut down and jump in the back seat of one of the F-16s to complete the mission,” Hanna said. “Otherwise the entire mission would have to be cancelled. Finally, the F-16s evolved to providing adversary support for the first formal class of F-35 pilots.”
While the 56th OG didn’t send pilots, the 56th Maintenance Group sent approximately 40 maintainers from the flightline and backshops, who rotated out to Eglin every 30 to 60 days.
“Eglin had a few F-16s on the test side, but Luke F-16s were specifically tasked to support the F-35 mission,” said Col. Victor Mora, 56th MXG commander. “Our accomplishments far outweighed a few manning and parts issues over the past couple of years. The maintainers supported 1,717 sorties, which resulted in 30 trained F-35 pilots.”
The Air Force mission is not accomplished by individual units, but by working together.
“The addition of Luke F-16s and maintainers to our team here at Eglin was invaluable in helping jumpstart F-35A flight training operations at the integrated training center,” said Col. Stephen Jost, 33d Operations Group commander. “Quite simply, we would not be as far along in our mission without the help of Airmen from across our Air Force working together to get the job done.”