Royal Australian Air Force completes training mission, departs from Luke

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Royal Australian Air Force pilots pose following their final training flight at Luke Air Force Base Nov. 22, 2019, at Luke AFB, Ariz. The RAAF began training at Luke with the 61st Fighter Squadron and Aircraft Maintenance Unit in December 2014 with two F-35s. Since then, 34 Australian pilots and 16 instructor pilots have completed training. As of January 2020, the RAAF owns 20 F-35s. (Air Force photograph by Airman 1st Class Leala Marquez)
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After achieving all training milestones, the Royal Australian Air Force began returning its F-35A Lightning II pilots, maintainers and aircraft to Australia from Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., in December 2019.

The RAAF began training at Luke with the 61st Fighter Squadron and Aircraft Maintenance Unit in December 2014 with two F-35s. Since then, 34 Australian pilots and 16 instructor pilots have earned their certification, and as of January 2020, the RAAF owns 20 F-35s.

“It’s going to be the start of another great working relationship and will continue what has been one of the most successful alliances in the last hundred years,” said Air Commodore Terry Van Haren, Australian Air attaché. “We have achieved a lot in the last five years since we started training here with the 56th Fighter Wing, 944th FW, 61st FS, 61st AMU and Lockheed Martin.”

In the future, Australian pilots and maintainers will train in Australia; however, they will remain regular visitors to Luke.

Lt. Col. Jordon Sander, 61st Fighter Squadron Australian Senior National Representative and new commander of the Royal Australian Air Force No. 2 Operational Conversion Unit (No. 2 OCU), is sprayed with water following his final flight at Luke Air Force Base Nov. 22, 2019. RAAF pilots and pilot instructors are returning to No. 2 OCU located at RAAF Base Williamtown, Australia, to begin the base’s transition to an operational F-35A Lightning II fighter wing. (Air Force photograph by Airman 1st Class Leala Marquez)

“Luke AFB is the RAAF’s F-35A delivery point, and Australian pilots will return several times a year to ferry the country’s new fifth generation fighters to Australia,” said Wing Commander Jordon Sander, 61st Fighter Squadron Australian Senior National Representative and new commander of RAAF No. 2 Operational Conversion Unit (No. 2 OCU). The ferrying missions will continue until the RAAF receives its last F-35A in 2023.

Luke and the RAAF will continue to maintain an alliance while Australian Air Force members primarily visit Luke when new F-35s are delivered.

“Both the RAAF and U.S. Air Force approach fighter flying and pilot training from different cultural perspectives,” said Sander. “Working alongside each other has seen the USAF challenge some of our ideas and vice versa. The relationship has helped us look inwards and ask ourselves why we do things the way we do.”

Col. Matthew Renbarger, 56th Operations Group commander (left), presents Lt. Col. Jordon Sander, 61st Fighter Squadron Australian Senior National Representative and new commander of Royal Australian Air Force No. 2 Operational Conversion Unit (No. 2 OCU), an F-35A lithograph during the RAAF Mateship ceremony Nov. 22, 2019, at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. During the ceremony, pilots and leadership from Luke and the RAAF celebrated the end of the RAAF’s F-35A Lightning II pilot and instructor pilot training at Luke and a start of a new relationship as the Australians return to their home to start flying operational missions in the F-35A. (Air Force photograph by Airman 1st Class Leala Marquez)

The RAAF plans to transition one of its existing units into an operational F-35 fighter wing within the next three years, said Van Haren.

On Dec. 16, the No. 2 OCU, located at RAAF Base Williamtown, Australia, ceased training F/A-18 Hornet pilots and transitioned into an F-35A training squadron, said Sander. No. 2 OCU will train all future RAAF F-35A pilots and maintainers.

Australia is one of seven nations currently partnered with Luke. The ability to work with other nations creates unique training opportunities for pilots and instructors from both countries. 

“We have lifted each other in training world class warfighters, and, as our pilots return to Australia, they do so with the latest information on F-35 employment and training,” said Sander. “When we find ourselves in the skies together during coalition operations, our time at Luke AFB will allow us to effectively integrate in the projection of combat airpower.”

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