USAF Selects First F-35 Pilots

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Two Airmen of Luke Air Force Base’s F-16 Fighting Falcon family were selected Jan. 9 to become the initial cadre for the F-35 Lightning II. 

Lt. Col. Stephen Pieper, 310th Fighter Squadron director of operations, was selected to be a squadron commander and Maj. Chad Lewis, 56th Operations Support Squadron assistant director of operations in weapons and tactics, was selected to be one of the first instructor pilots for the Air Force’s newest fighter aircraft. 

Since only a handful of test pilots currently fly the F-35, the Falcon duo will need to learn to fly the aircraft from them, Major Lewis said. 

“This initial qualification training will take approximately two to three months,” he said. “Once we’re qualified, we’ll be responsible for training the next pilot in line. The United States Air Force plans to buy more than 1,700 of these aircraft, so we have a lot of pilots to train.” 

The two aviators will be part of the 10 initial instructors in the F-35 training program and will be responsible for training all the subsequent instructors. Along with FTU instructor responsibilities, the initial cadre will develop tactics and assist with systems development in future F-35 variants. They will also be developing methods of force application that will revolutionize warfare, the major said. 

To find suitable applicants to become initial cadre, the Air Force sought pilots with A-10 Thunderbolt II, F-16, F-22 Raptor and F-15E Strike Eagle experience. Colonel Pieper and Major Lewis submitted applications through their chain of command to be assigned a rank order number. Once the applications left the base, they were reviewed by a selection board chaired by Maj. Gen. Anthony Przybyslawski, Air Education and Training Command vice commander. 

The selection board evaluated multiple criteria including flying hours and fighter experience. Major Lewis believes these areas gave him an advantage above other applicants. 

“I am a weapons instructor course graduate with more than 1,500 F-16 Fighting Falcon and 500 instructor pilot hours,” he said. “I also have combat experience in Operations Northern Watch and Iraqi Freedom. I think these are some of the biggest things that helped me get selected.” 

Along with Major Lewis’ background, Colonel Pieper and the others bring similar combat experiences as well to benefit future Lightning II pilots they take under their wing. 

“The combat experience that a number of us have will prove valuable as we attempt to marry the additional capabilities the aircraft bring and the tasking the Air Force has for us to fill and uphold,” Colonel Pieper said. 

Though Colonel Pieper will be filling a different position than his current job, he is confident his experience will transition well as an F-35 squadron commander. 

“As director of operations, I have gained experience balancing schedule priorities with aircraft and airspace availability, which will be of great benefit in bringing the Air Force’s newest fighter into service.” he said. “The leadership development opportunities in my current position will pay dividends in the F-35 program.” 

For Major Lewis the opportunity the new assignment provides is two-fold. 

“One is to be among the first pilots to fly the F-35,” he said. “Number two is to be involved in the development of a program that will have a long lasting impact on future airpower application.” 

Along with the opportunities are the challenges associated with any new weapon system, he said. 

“This aircraft and weapons system is drastically different than any other in the Air Force,” Major Lewis said.

(Tong Duong)

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One Response to “USAF Selects First F-35 Pilots”

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