Eglin F-35’s first flight cut short

The Air Force makes history, briefly, as its training unit begins flying.

The Air Force’s F-35s at Eglin AFB were cleared to fly just as the brass said they’d be at the winter AFA meeting, but when it actually happened there was a little hitch.

The debut flight was supposed to last 90 minutes, but the pilot turned back after only 15 when the aircraft showed what appeared to be a fuel leak. According to the Air Force’s statement, it was a successful failure:

“Our first sortie is truly a milestone for the program,” said Col. Andrew Toth, 33rd Fighter Wing commander. “Unfortunately things happen. We didn’t want it to happen today but we were prepared. Our pilot did the exact right thing in returning the jet back to Eglin. Although there were issues we are doing whatever we can to move the program forward safely and effectively.”

Pilots and maintainers will meet later today to discuss the potential fuel leak finding that caused the precautionary end of the sortie at 15 minutes versus the 90 minutes scheduled to be airborne to complete the operational check flight.

“We met both objectives today; get the aircraft airborne and start local area operations,” said Lt. Col. Eric Smith, the Air Force’s first F-35 pilot who tested the aircraft at Edwards AFB, Calif. “Our team did the most conservative thing by deciding to bring the plane back. We trained for this many times in the simulator for this exact reason.”

The crowd on the flight line present for take-off kept the cheers for their integrated team’s first aircraft launch and feel the day was still a success.

“It’s a wonderful experience to know I made history launching the first F-35,” said Staff Sgt. Jeremy Houser, 33rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, who saluted Smith in the cockpit before the jet taxied down the ramp.

Maintainers have been preparing for today’s launch with engine runs and taxi operations for approximately eight months since the aircraft began arriving here last summer. Utilizing virtual trainers, developing pilot curriculum and hosting small group tryouts has been the focus of personnel to ready themselves for flight operations to come.

“This is our execution year,” said Toth, who is proud of his team for laying the foundation to get the nation’s training program ready to go. “The cohesion we developed between the services make this not just about the Air Force, but about the wing’s program to launch the F-35A as a baseline for the JSF program’s future. It’s taken the entire team, all services and contractors to build this up. Had the partnership not been there, I don’t think we’d be here today.”

Since 2009, Air Force, Navy and Marines sent their best aviators and aircraft mechanics to develop the next generation warriors of the joint strike fighter program here.

“I can’t wait until we fly more and show our stuff to the world,” said Senior Airman Arthur Verchot, 33rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief launch assistant.

More pilot students will flow into the program at the right time so the wing has the correct number of people in each phase of the program. With people as the main training product, the 33rd FW focuses on preparing for an anticipated 2,200 students a year and 900 “on campus” at any given time at full capacity.

It was, at very least, forward progress, although the truncated flight perfectly encapsulated the story of the F-35 program so far. And it also brought a reminder that even with this milestone, the way ahead still isn’t very clear.

The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Washington’s Rep. Adam Smith, told reporters last week “we do not yet have a firm idea of when the planes are going to be ready,” and how “concerned” he was about that. But he wound up with the same old refrain: There’s nothing for it. We’re too far along.

“We can’t cancel the program now,” he said. “We have to make it work.”