The global F-35 Program is a massive undertaking and the F-35A aircraft Australia is acquiring are the epitome of fifth-generation fighters. But who gets to fly these game-changing pieces of machinery?
Wing Commander (WGCDR) Andrew Jackson and Squadron Leader (SQNLDR) David Bell, former F/A18 Hornet pilots, were the first Australians to fly and qualify on the F-35A. They are based in the United States at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, where they are now instructing on the F-35A and playing an integral role in the successful transition of the global capability.
WGCDR Jackson, who joined the Air Force in 1995 and flew PC-9 and MB-326H aircraft before qualifying on the F/A-18A/B Hornet in 2000, says he has always loved fast jets.
"Flying fast jets in the Air Force is the type of flying you can’t do anywhere else,” he says.
“I wanted to fly the F-35A because I wanted to be part of bringing in a new capability. I felt I had something to offer, and that my experience flying Hornets would benefit the transition process.”
SQNLDR Bell joined the Air Force in 2002 and started his pilot training on the CT-4 in Tamworth before progressing to the PC-9 and Hawk 127 at RAAF Base Pearce.
He completed his F/A-18A/B Hornet training at RAAF Base Williamtown in 2006.
"I enjoy the challenge of flying fighters,” he says. “Every sortie is different and there is always something to learn and improve on for next time. The opportunity to fly a brand new RAAF platform only comes around once every 30 years or so. The task of bringing a new platform like the F-35A into Australian service spans many complex elements and I’m looking forward to the challenge of playing my role in that process.”
WGCDR Jackson and SQNLDR Bell were selected for F-35A training following an expression of interest process in Australia. They then posted to Arizona and were put through their paces on the aircraft, qualifying in April and September 2015, respectively. They have been instructing at the F-35A International Pilot Training Centre (PTC) at Luke ever since.
There are no dual-seat F-35 aircraft and instructing from another aircraft for all flight sequences can be challenging and is a significantly different skill to instructing from the back seat,” WGCDR Jackson says.
SQNLDR Bell says until recently they have been instructing pilots from F-35 Program partner nations, including US pilots who have come from other operational fighters.
“Earlier this year, the training syllabus was expanded to include ab initio training – pilots who have never flown an operational fighter before,” he says. “The single-seat nature of the F-35 presents a challenge to timely, effective instruction, which at times can be exacerbated by the Australian accent.”
WGCDR Jackson enjoyed the experience of instructing students on the first ab initio course, members of which graduated in August 2017.
“Instructing a group of students who had never previously flown an operational fighter [and progressing them] through to an F-35 ops squadron was a rewarding experience,” he says.
The F-35A is designed to be a force enabler for other Air Force and ADF assets.
“The utilisation of networked capabilities to synthesise a composite picture and communicate that to other network participants in a CDO [contested/degraded operational] environment provides a significant capability increase over legacy fighters,” WGCDR Jackson says.
“In addition to the obvious physical differences and the fact there isn’t a head-up display, the manner in which we fight the aircraft is very different.
“The combination of stealth and sensor fusion means we can put the aircraft into situations that would have been impossible for a Hornet.”
SQNLDR Bell adds that the stealth nature of the aircraft allows it to operate in contested environments in which the Hornet cannot.
“The sensor suite is particularly impressive and the F-35A’s capability to share that information with other ADF platforms will facilitate better, more timely tactical decisions,” he says.
Both pilots were in Australia in late November 2017 to help members of the Air Combat Transition Office and Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Division develop the Verification & Validation (V&V) plan for when the first F-35A aircraft are scheduled to begin arriving at RAAF Base Williamtown from December 2018.
“We were working to identify the ‘long-lead’ items that need to be in place in time to start flying operations,” SQNLDR Bell says.
WGCDR Jackson says his priority for 2018 is to ensure that everything is in place to allow No. 3 Squadron – Australia’s first F-35A squadron – to “hit the ground running” in 2019.
“I’ll be supporting the transition effort, including planning for the ferry of the first two aircraft to Australia, V&V and developing tactical procedures and publications,” he says.
“I’ll be working closely with the No. 3 Squadron team to ensure that F-35A Initial Operating Capability milestones are achieved.”
Although he has loved living and working in Phoenix, WGCDR Jackson is excited about posting back to Williamtown in December 2018 and living in Newcastle again.
“I’m looking forward to playing my part in standing up the Australian F-35A capability,” he says.
SQNLDR Bell is also posting to No. 3 Squadron when he returns to Australia in late 2018.
“The squadron will have a two-year period to verify and validate the facilities, procedures, processes and training that define the capability of the F-35A in the Australian operating environment,” he says.
“This activity will span issues such as working out how long it takes to order spare tyres, to validation of the workforce structure and development of tactics to integrate with other ADF platforms.”
Both pilots agree that, while training to be a fighter pilot can be challenging, the rewards far outweigh the difficulties.
“Being a fighter pilot is like no other job on the planet. It takes time and a considerable amount of effort to succeed, but the rewards are absolutely worth it,” WGCDR Jackson says.