Two-year anniversary since Lightning struck Luke

Staff Sgt. Darlene Seltmann

This month marks the two-year anniversary of the unveiling of the first F-35 Lightning II to arrive at Luke Air Force Base.

The arrival of the F-35 ushered in a new era of operational and mechanical training for the base whose primary mission for the past 34 years has been to train the world’s greatest F-16 pilots.

“The F-35 will be the backbone of future joint and combined air operations,” said Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus, 56th Fighter Wing commander. “As the F-35 draws closer to reaching initial operating capability, we will continue to train with our partners to operate seamlessly as a team in theatre. Luke will carry on the vital role of producing the world’s greatest, and most lethal, F-35 fighter pilots.”

Since its initial arrival, the F-35 program has grown rapidly. Over the last two years 6,100 flight hours and 4,125 sorties have been flown. There are currently 35 F-35s at Luke with 144 scheduled to be on the ramp by 2024.

One pilot, Lt. Col. Matthew Hayden, 56th FW chief of safety, started out as an F-35 test pilot in 2008 and became the first active-duty Air Force fighter pilot to surpass 500 flight hours in the F-35. His first two years in the program were primarily focused on planning and designing future course material, with much time spent in the simulators and meetings with engineers.

“My first flight didn’t happen until 2010. It was a very smooth transition because of all the time and preparation that went into my first flight,” Hayden said. “So, as I concluded the mission that pushed me over the 500-hour mark earlier this year, I felt blessed to have had an opportunity to be involved in the program in various stages and in different roles. I’m excited there are so many of my fellow pilots at Luke who are very close to the same personal milestone in their F-35 flying experience, but also excited to see the program blossom with so much success.”

After watching the F-35 program evolve over the past eight years Hayden says he thinks the future of the F-35 program at Luke is promising and exciting.

“Training fighter pilots has been the cornerstone of the Luke mission for years, and the transition to the F-35 enables us to utilize our expertise in training, airspace, ranges, weather and infrastructure of the West Valley and catapult the Air Force and our F-35 partner nations into the fifth generation strike platform training environment,” Hayden said. “At even the early stages of Luke’s F-35 training you can already see the far-reaching impact on the Air Force and the entire F-35 enterprise.”

The F-35 is expected to be in service for the next 40 to 50 years. Hill AFB, Utah, and Eglin AFB, Florida, are both scheduled to reach initial operational capability in 2016.

It takes thousands of Airmen, both on and off the flightline, to support the critical mission of training the world’s best F-35 pilots. Pleus is proud to have watched his team actively take on this new mission and drive it forward into the future.

“We’ve taken tremendous steps forward the last two years developing the joint strike fighter program and made history as we hit important milestones for the F-35,” Pleus said. “From training our first class of F-35 student pilots, to welcoming new international partners at Luke, the hard work and ingenuity of our Airmen, and the overwhelming support of the community has made these successes possible.”