Maj. Thomas Hayes, a pilot with the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron, a tenant unit at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., gives an inside look at what it’s like to be a F-35 Lightning II test pilot. Six operational test and evaluation F-35s and more than 85 Airmen of the 31st TES travelled to Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, to conduct the first simulated deployment test of the F-35A, specifically to execute three key initial operational capability mission sets: suppression of enemy air defenses, close air support and air interdiction.
(U.S. Air Force Video by Andrew Arthur Breese)


On a secluded road, a truck kicked up dust as it neared a village. The vehicle rounded a bend and pulled clear of the houses just as a bomb impacted a yard or two away from its front fender, throwing dirt high into the air.

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In a war zone, the bomb would have blown the vehicle to pieces, killing its occupants. But this village, constructed of shipping containers and populated with dummies, was located at Saylor Creek Range, part of the Mountain Home Air Force Base Complex in Idaho. The vehicle was remotely controlled; its only passengers were radio receivers and other equipment. The bomb was an inert practice round that did little more than hit the ground with a thud and kick up some soil.

Special operations ground attack controllers direct bombing strikes at Sailor Range to test the close air support capabilities of the F-35A Lightning II during a simulated deployment test at Mountain Home AFB. The testing not only measured accuracy on target, but also the ability of the F-35A to employ data collection and integration with the controllers and other aircraft to make the execution of ground attack missions quicker and more efficient. (U.S. Air Force photo/J.M. Eddins Jr.)
Special operations ground attack controllers direct bombing strikes at Saylor Creek Range to test the close air support capabilities of the F-35A Lightning II during a simulated deployment test at Mountain Home AFB. The testing not only measured accuracy on target, but also the ability of the F-35A to employ data collection and integration with the controllers and other aircraft to make the execution of ground attack missions quicker and more efficient. (U.S. Air Force photo/J.M. Eddins Jr.)

From a neighboring vantage point, the exercise’s joint tactical air controllers called in for air support, relaying coordinates to nearby aircraft and giving the green light for an aerial strike. The F-35 released ordnance from 16,000 feet above — a hit —  which was followed by the ear-splitting blasts from the A-10’s cannon.

Though a generation apart, the two jets integrated together during the F-35’s first simulated deployment. Their joint mission: providing close air support and keeping friendly forces on the ground safe.

The operational test run in February by the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron brought the F-35 one step closer to the projected goal of declaring the airframe’s initial operation capability later this year. While at Mountain Home AFB, six F-35s went through combat testing scenarios that included the mission sets of air interdiction, limited suppression of enemy defenses and basic CAS. To assist with the testing process, the fighter jets flew each scenario alongside F-15E Strike Eagles from the 366th Fighter Wing and A-10s from the 124th Fighter Wing.

An inert GBU-12 bomb, dropped by an F-35A, impacts next to remotely controlled mobile target during testing of the close air support capabilities of the aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo/J.M. Eddins Jr.)

Testing scenarios varied, from coordinating ground strikes with JTACs to flying joint missions with the F-15E against opposing aerial forces and surface to air missiles. Maj. Chris White, the 59th Test and Evaluation Squadron F-35 project manager, explained that the training followed a building block approach, with combat scenarios steadily increasing in difficulty throughout the  week. As the simulations progressed, pilots and maintainers had to immediately integrate each day’s lesson into future training plans.

“We ramp-up the scenarios, and we see how (the F-35) does in actual fights,” White said. “Modeling and simulation is great, but until you actually go up against another human flying another jet, where you don’t know exactly what he’s going to do, that result really can’t be valid. That’s the beauty of operational tests; you really put (the jet) through the wringer, see what happens, and then you take those lessons learned … rinse and repeat a couple times, and now you’ve got a new tactics manual.”

The test scenarios were created to highlight the new aircraft’s combat abilities and limitations. Beyond recognizing needed improvements to the airframe and software, the information gathered during each test can provide Air Combat Command a clearer idea as to how the F-35 should be utilized in battlefield operations.

An F-35A takes off at Mountain Home AFB. Six operational test and evaluation F-35As and more than 85 Airmen travelled to Mountain Home AFB to conduct the first simulated deployment test of the F-35A, evaluating mission capabilities of suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), close air support (CAS), and air interdiction and its integration with other aircraft and ground controllers. (U.S. Air Force photo/J.M. Eddins Jr.)

The mock deployment is only one part in a series of progressive evaluations scheduled for the jet throughout the year, said Maj. Ethan Sabin, a 31st TES operational test pilot. “We continually refine our tactics, techniques and procedures, which is exactly what we’re doing here; we’ll continue to do so as the software on the aircraft develops and the capabilities of the aircraft develop.”

In its infant stage, the F-35 has gone through many growing pains as engineers, maintainers and pilots put the plane through its paces. However the rigorous testing identifies needed updates that will enable the aircraft to live up to its billing: the world’s most advanced multi-role fighter, providing the warfighter unprecedented situational awareness, stealth and the ability to integrate and seamlessly share information with friendly aircraft improving the lethality of the entire force.

One modernizing transformation to the new generation of aircraft is an upgraded approach to the aspect of stealth. According to the F-35’s developers at Lockheed Martin, because of the aircraft’s overall design – “its external shape, internal carriage of weapons and fuel, embedded mission systems sensors” and manufacturing process – the F-35 has unique abilities when it comes to evading detection from adversaries.

“The difference in the learning process that we face in operational tests is taking that fourth-generation fighter mentality of having an aluminum jet — a jet that can be seen by radar — and crafting and molding our tactics in a fifth-generation aircraft that is low observable,” Sabin said. “We can hide from certain enemy radars; it’s pretty awesome.”

An F-35 Lightning fighter jet from the 53rd Test and Evaluation Squadron takes off from Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho
An F-35 from the 53rd Test and Evaluation Squadron takes off from Mountain Home AFB. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

Another feature bringing the young jet to the forefront of aviation is the new digital technology incorporated throughout.  Some of the aircraft’s advancements include sensors that create a 360-degree picture of the world outside the cockpit and “state-of-the-art” tactical data links that open a secure link between allies, in the air and on the ground, easing the sharing of data between each component.

“It’s all built brand-new, and it’s extremely complex,” said Maj. Tom Hayes, the 31st TES chief of weapons and tactics. “You’re trying to take all this new rapidly developing technology, hardware and software, and you’re trying to meld it all together in a system that works, and you’re doing that while you’re going over 400 mph.  It’s kind of tough to get it right the first time, so we end up having to go back to the drawing board, make a few adjustments and corrections, and the come back out and try it again the next day.”

Flight test is an ongoing process for every weapon system in the Air Force inventory, even systems that have been operational for decades.  However, test piloting the Air Force’s newest jet, Hayes finds his contribution to the development to be quite unique. He said that when he reports on F-35 operational test flights, he doesn’t just email a person; he gets to have a meeting with the engineers at Lockheed Martin to explain the perspective of the man in the cockpit 35,000 feet above the ground.  Hayes can directly describe if there is a component of the jet he feels could be better optimized or if anything needs to be fixed.

“One of the coolest parts about that is the feedback you get from talking to somebody that feels just as passionately about the airplane as you do. While the engineers don’t necessarily fly the airplane, it’s in their hearts,” Hayes said. “It’s what they want, to build the best possible airplane in the world,” which, he added, is a goal shared by the flying community.

Aircraft maintainers Staff Sgt. Thomas Stewart (left), Senior Airman Justin Wilmarth and Staff Sgt. Chris Mauldin prepare to tow an F-35A on the flightline at Mountain Home AFB. Airmen of the 31st TES travelled to Mountain Home AFB to conduct the first simulated deployment test of the F-35A to evaluate not only aircraft performance, but also mission planning, scheduling, weapons building/loading, sortie generation, life support, mission employment, debrief and aircraft turn. (U.S. Air Force photo/J.M. Eddins Jr.)

Regardless of the public climate toward the airframe – good or bad — Hayes is not inclined to make the aircraft look “more shiny” to justify the cost. Ensuring the safety and optimal operational capability of any aircraft before it is delivered to combat squadrons is the bedrock goal of every operational flight test. Test pilots, like Hayes, do their job with intensity and focus in order to deliver the best aircraft to the nation’s warfighters. Pushing an aircraft to its limits and beyond and delivering an uncompromising assessment of its performance, is a not just a job, but a responsibility to their fellow pilots, some of whom are friends.

“As a fighter pilot and an operational test pilot, I will never make something look good that’s not,” Hayes said. “I don’t want anybody ever to call me back and say, ‘Why didn’t you catch this?’ or, ‘Why didn’t you find this one problem on the airplane?’ I’m usually one of the first guys to raise my hand and say something is not right about this, and we need to get it fixed.

“My pay is not affected one bit by the end result of a test report or a test flight,” he added. “My sole charge in life is to go out and either find ways to break the airplane or find ways to make the airplane break the thing on the ground that it’s supposed to.”

Previously an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot, Hayes said his beloved former jet had also gone through a process of discovery, akin to that of the F-35 now, around the time of its first flight in 1976.  During 40 years of continual testing of the F-16, pilots have been able to figure out where the problems are in the aircraft, and developed procedures and tactics to minimize or eliminate the deficiency, while engineers constantly work on improvements. The major’s connection with the past helps him to visualize what an asset the F-35 will be to maintaining air superiority, especially as it matures with time and experience, just like the F-16 once did.

Maj. Thomas Hayes, of the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron, walks to the flightline at Mountain Home AFB during the first simulated deployment test of the F-35A. (U.S. Air Force photo/J.M. Eddins Jr.)

“Is the F-35 perfect? It absolutely isn’t, but it’s also in its infancy. With the version of airplanes that we fly here and that are currently being fielded, there is a lot of technology that’s still being built and still being refined,” Hayes said. “I have every hope and belief that in five or ten years the F-35 is going to be one of the most amazing airplanes out there.”

Because the aircraft is brand-new, as of yet there are still a lot of unknowns about this highly complex piece of machinery. As such, the operational test pilots who were selected to fly F-35 in its infancy came highly qualified. Most were instructor pilots on their previously assigned platforms, with an accumulation of roughly 700 or more flight hours.

“On this deployment alone, we have representation from the F-16, (F-15E and) A-10,” White said. “We’ve even got a Marine exchange pilot that we brought with us. He’s bringing in some F-18 (Hornet) experience as well. That’s been huge because what that allows us to do is avoid that groupthink mentality; when you think you’ve got the right answer, you always have someone from a different perspective or point of view that can immediately cite fallacies in that argument.”

Through open discussion, the diverse group is able to adapt tactics, techniques and procedures for the F-35 from a blend of all the communities’ ideas and practical expertise. The testing squadron hosts not only a wealth of knowledge in other airframes, but also mission sets.

As a former A-10 pilot, when Sabin was selected to join the 31st TES, he was keen to bring his CAS experience to the F-35. The new jet has been touted as an eventual replacement for legacy airframes, such as the F-16s and A-10s. This plan has spurred several head-to-head comparisons in the media, especially between the A-10 and the F-35. To Sabin, however, that match up is like comparing “apples to chainsaws.”

Maj. Ethan Sabin, who has 10 years experience flying the A-10 Thunderbolt II, is now at the forefront of testing the capabilities of the Air Force’s newest and most technologically advanced fighter: the F-35. As for the perceived feud between proponents of the A-10 and the F-35, he believes the two platforms are not competitors, but are complimentary, with the F-35’s ability to collect battlespace data and share it with legacy aircraft making the entire force more lethal. (U.S. Air Force photo/J.M. Eddins Jr.)

“They are two totally different things that serve totally different purposes,” he explained. “The bottom line is the A-10 does certain things very well. It is very effective as a close air support platform. The F-35 does certain things very well, and when you leverage its capabilities correctly, it can be very effective as a CAS platform.

“I think the important point to note is to find that fine balance between where to use one versus where to use another. I wouldn’t feed myself with a chainsaw. Vice versa, I wouldn’t try to cut down a tree with an apple.  They’re just different, and they have different capabilities.”

Even though the two airframes vary in many ways, Sabin believes his new jet can be just as efficient as the A-10 he once flew.

“The biggest thing … is the training of the pilot in the platform,” Sabin said. “We are going to take a lot of the lessons learned that the A-10s have in their close air support experience, apply it to our platform, continue to integrate with those guys on the spectrum of CAS operations, and build our CAS playbook, like they have done for so many years.”

Four inert GBU-31 bombs are staged before loading onto F-35As at Mountain Home AFB. The bombs were used for ground attack tests over Saylor Creek Range to assess the close air support capabilities of the F-35A in a simulated combat scenario. (U.S. Air Force photo/J.M. Eddins Jr.)

Bringing expertise from the F-16, A-10, F-15, etc., the test pilots rely a lot on their own knowledge of previous airframes to develop tactics for the F-35. However, with the advanced technology and design, their tactical experience does not always translate to the new jet. The F-35 boasts several out of the box features unknown to previous generations of aircraft.  The fighters’ capabilities in air-to-air combat, air interdiction and other mission sets are still being tested and discovered.

The Air Force has stated that its target date for declaring IOC is between Aug. 1 and Dec. 31. Between now and then, the 31st TES and other F-35 squadrons will continue to push the boundaries of the new fifth-generation fighter to make sure it is operationally sound and as lethal as possible before sending it into combat. The F-35 continues on the pathway to IOC through training programs and tests, such as the joint deployment at Mountain Home AFB. While various limitations may have been discovered, they will continue to be addressed in order to bring the F-35 one step closer to becoming what it was intended to be: the leading edge in air superiority.

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