F-35 Program Ramps Up Training for Pilots, Technicians

By Stew Magnuson
The F-35 joint strike fighter program is transitioning to a day when its pilots will come fresh out of flight school and the new jet fighter will be their first assignment. 

The services’ cadre of pilots so far have been veterans of other programs such as the F-15, F-16, Harrier or A-10s, said Mike Luntz, director of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 training systems.

“Many of the pilots that we have trained to date have been the more experienced pilots,” he said in an interview. “They typically have over 1,500 hours, maybe up to 3,000 hours of actual flight time in other fighter aircraft.”

Lockheed Martin, in addition to being the builder of the aircraft, also has the contract to provide training for both pilots and maintainers, including classroom instruction, flight simulators for pilots and mock-up aircraft for technicians.

These new so-called “category-one” pilots will have only about 200 hours of flight time in T-38 trainers at flight school and will be asked to take control of the U.S. military’s newest 5th-generation aircraft, which currently cost a little more than $100 million each.

“They just got their wings and they’re ready to move from that trainer aircraft into that fighter aircraft,” Luntz said. Lockheed Martin is gearing up to support the first batch of these less experienced pilots at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina.

During their first flight in an F-35, they will have an instructor flying in tandem, but since the F-35s are all single-seaters, they will be on their own, he said.  

“They don’t have as much experience with fighter aircraft so the concern is safety,” he said.

The general feedback Lockheed Martin has received from the experienced pilots who have flown the F-35 so far is that it is easier to handle than earlier generation fighters. The complexity comes in all the missions it must perform, Luntz said.

“In general, the pilot of the F-35 is going to transition from someone that is very proficient at flying a complex aircraft to flying something that is much easier to fly, but now they are focused much more on the mission and the advanced capabilities that the F-35 brings. [The pilot] is really more of an information manager and absorbing that information and making decisions based on the sensor fusion capabilities of the aircraft.”

The Air Force and Marine Corps experienced several “firsts” in 2015 as the program progressed.

Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona, home of Marine fighter attack squadron 121, received its first four simulators, which had been upgraded with the latest software.

The Air Force’s 31st test and evaluation squadron provided the Army with close-air support in a Green Flag exercise operated out of Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas. The 56th Fighter Wing from Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, deployed to Nellis to see how it would operate away from its home base. 

As for pilot training, it takes about three months and begins with classroom instruction, Luntz said.

“All of the systems on the F-35 are taught in the training curriculum so as that new category one student goes through the F-35 training syllabus they will learn all the capabilities of the aircraft. How to fly it, in addition how to prosecute any number of different missions the F-35 is built to perform such as close-air support … they will get all the different missions when they go through the training curriculum,” Luntz said.

They then move on to the flight simulator.

The F-35 Lightning II Training System is a high-fidelity simulator that must match whatever software block is currently installed in the aircraft. The F-35, since it is being flown as it is being developed, has had several software upgrades. The simulators must have whatever is the most current version. The training systems are at: Beaufort; Eglin Air Force Base, Florida; Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona; and Luke Air Force Base, Arizona.

When software upgrades go out to the fleet, the simulators are included.

The simulator itself has a 360-degree dome that replicates what a pilot would see outside the cockpit, with only slight variations for the Marine Corps short take-off vertical landing variant. It takes 24 projectors to create the images. When the computer is initialized, the trainee can pick the A, B or C model. Whatever the pilot touches is the actual equipment found in the real aircraft, Luntz said.

“I wouldn’t say it is an exact replica, but for all of the training relevant areas, it is a very high fidelity simulation of the actual aircraft,” Luntz said.

“The F-35 IIB configuration and new aircraft are coming off the production line with the 3i software load, so our focus as we move forward will be to ensure that when the block release of that software is fielded that we have the simulator capability fielded in or around the same timeframe,” he said.

The flight simulators can also work in tandem, according to a Marine Corps press release. Four pilots, for example, can link their mock aircraft and work as a team.

Lockheed Martin is currently under contract to supply 87 full mission simulators through the low-rate initial production (LRIP) lot 9 and probably another 10 units for LRIP 10. The program of record calls for about 239 flight simulators, which will also be used by the program’s international partners and customers.

“Our focus as we move forward is to maintain currency with the aircraft,” he said. Such items as the Gatling gun, and a new helmet, which have had development problems, will have to be integrated into the simulator as they come online.

Meanwhile, the Air Force is looking at a long-term shortage of pilots and maintainers.
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, director of the Air Force F-35 integration office, said there could be some pilot shortfalls in the future.

The Air Force has a sufficient number of pilots to reach its planned initial operating capability in 2016, he said at a recent House Armed Services Committee tactical land and air subcommittee hearing on the status of the program, but there are longer term issues related to the Air Force enterprise-wide fighter pilot manning shortfalls that are being addressed.

“Specifically regarding the F-35A, we will carefully manage the fighter pilot inventory as the fighter force structure evolves. Our focus is to ensure the right balance of qualified pilots, with the correct experience levels, are assigned to our growing F-35A fleet in balance with other combat fighter platforms,” Harrigian said.

The Air Force has completed actions to address maintenance manning concerns to meet F-35 IOC in 2016, he said. However, the service projects a shortfall of 1,500 maintenance personnel to meet F-35 requirements between fiscal years 2017 to 2019.

“In order to mitigate this shortfall we are evaluating several options to include increasing the active-duty end strength, leveraging more total force maintenance manning solutions, and contracting additional maintenance requirements,” he said.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher C. Bogdan, F-35 program executive officer at the Defense Department, said a shortage of aircraft to train with also threatens to slow down the Air Force’s plan to reach IOC in 2016.

The aircraft at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, which are needed to reach IOC, will need modifications to bring them to the full Block 3i software configuration to add airborne lightning protection and weapons employment capabilities, he testified at the hearing.

“These modification requirements and their associated down times add risk to the IOC date because the down times for modifying these aircraft removes them from the flightline and reduces the number of aircraft for pilot training.

“We are working with the U.S. Air Force to find solutions to the aircraft shortfall,” he added.

“The U.S. Air Force sees this software development as a potential risk for IOC until it has been fully tested and explored by our operational testers; however, development ground testing results note improvement,” he added.

Along with pilots, maintainers must be adequately trained for the program to move forward. They too begin with classroom work, but their simulators are computer-game based and done on desktops, Luntz said. They are given a number of scenarios where they must understand the joint technical data and all the maintenance procedures such as how to change a wheel.

The scenario allows them to select the tools and processes they need to change the wheel and tire, and then actually go perform that in the virtual system, Luntz said. If they don’t have the right tools, the system won’t let them proceed.

“So when they go to the aircraft for the first time they have complete familiarization with how to perform that procedure,” he said.

There are also mock-ups that allow the technicians to practice on parts of the F-35 without risking damage to the real aircraft.

The weapons load trainer lets them practice inserting munitions in the bomb bay doors.
The ejection system maintenance trainer is the full height of the actual canopy and is used by both the pilots and the maintainers.

Pilots use it for ingress and egress training — “how to get in and out of the cockpit without damaging themselves or the equipment,” Luntz explained. The technicians learn to maintain the ejection seat and the canopy. There are pyrotechnics involved in the seat, so it is a delicate process.

There are three more mock-ups in development, he said. One will teach how to remove and replace the integrated power pack. The other two are for removing and replacing the engine lift fan and maintaining the landing gear. They are slated to be delivered in the 2017 timeframe, he said. A total of 223 pilots and 2,322 maintainers have been trained as of early November, according to Lockheed Martin figures.

The Navy, meanwhile, which isn’t expected to reach initial operating capability until August 2018 at the earliest, is behind the other two services when it comes to training as it continues to develop the C-model. It expects to begin training for its first 10 aircraft in 2016, Bogdan said.

“In support of meeting the U.S. Navy IOC, the F-35C recently successfully completed its second of three sea trials and provides the U.S. Navy a highly useful carrier launch and recovery envelope for operationally representative internal store configurations that the training squadron, VFA-101, will begin using next year to train,” he said at the hearing.

Topics: Aviation, Joint Strike Fighter, Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training

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