NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — Lightning seldom appears in the Las Vegas sky, but when it does, it is always something to behold.
Local residents can attest to the unique opportunity in Southern Nevada of seeing one bolt of lightning dash across the sky with the Las Vegas skyline in the background. However April 4, witnesses were able to experience a sight that they had not seen before.
Unlike weather that normally comes and goes with the clouds, this time there was not a cloud in the sky. This lightning was made of metal and powered by fuel. Two F-35A Lightning IIs assigned to the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron conducted the aircraft’s first operational flights from Nellis AFB.
Lt. Col. Benjamin Bishop, 422nd TES director of operations and Capt. Brad Matherne, 422 TES F-35 division commander, were the first pilots to conduct an operational flight from Nellis’ flight line.
Both have prepared for this moment for quite some time.
“It’s been a long time command, and the level of effort by all those involved with getting to this point has been nothing short of astounding,” Matherne said. “Now we can get down to the business of what Nellis does best; the development of tactics.”
“The squadron’s first F-35 sortie represents the culmination of efforts by a world-class operations and maintenance team,” Bishop said. This mission also signified the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Nellis AFB.
The successful flight does not begin or end with the pilots. Bishop went on to credit the hard work of maintenance Airmen with mastering a complex new airframe, while working overtime to ensure it was ready for flight.
“The first local F-35 flight speaks volumes about the professionalism of our Nellis maintenance team,” he added. “The fact they were able to accept the aircraft and get them into the air so quickly is astonishing. These jets are new to Air Combat Command, so they are literally writing the book on many of the procedures used to maintain the aircraft.”
Members of the 57th Maintenance Group’s Lightning Aircraft Maintenance Unit and the 422nd TES have prepared for years to make the transition of the F-35A to Nellis smooth.
“All the training and preparation over the last two years have been for this day,” said Chief Master Sgt. Michael Prah, Lightning AMU superintendent. “Getting the aircraft in the air shows the hard work our maintenance Airmen have put forth in order to bring this new capability to Nellis.”
“If you look at the capability that this aircraft will bring to the fight once it’s operational, it’s humbling knowing you were involved with the initial development,” Matherne said. “It will definitely be something I look back at and take pride in for a long time.”
This historic flight comes less than a month after the March 19 arrival ceremony for the aircraft.
During the ceremony, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Lofgren, U.S. Air Force Warfare Center commander, noted that live flying the aircraft over the Nevada Test and Training Range is only the first step in integrating the F-35 into operations here.
A simulator is also being constructed on Nellis in order to test and develop tactics for advanced training. Together with continued operational flights, the Air Force will begin to see how the Lightning II reacts to realistic enemies in real-world operations.
While this may be the first time the Lightning II has appeared in the clear skies over Las Vegas, it will not be the last. The Air Force plans to assign 36 F-35s to Nellis by 2020.
“This is the future of airpower,” Bishop said. “I am honored be a part of the team that will write the tactics, techniques, and procedures F-35 pilots will use in the years to follow.”