Actually, Eglin Air Force Base – the home of the 33rd Fighter Wing responsible for F-35 pilot and maintainer training – is gearing up to receive pilots from the United States and all of the partner countries, not just Australia.

In fact with the RAAF’s aircraft due to begin arriving in 2014 they will be some way down the list of trainees. The first international pilots to arrive will be from the UK next year, though the US might begin training their own people as early as December.

Some uncertainty remains about precise JSF delivery dates, which in turn affects precise training arrangements.

Located in steamy Florida, Eglin is huge and at 220,000 square kilometers is the largest air force base in the world. To give an idea of scale, this is 2/3rd the area of Tasmania or twice the size of the North Island of New Zealand.

Some of the flying range extends over the nearby Gulf of Mississippi, allowing training to take place over water, allowing interaction with naval assets. Another benefit is that several ground units are also located at Eglin, which makes the task of arranging joint operations rehearsals much easier than if everyone was more widely dispersed.

The current Commanding Officer of the 33rd Fighter Wing is US Marine Corps Colonel Art Tomassetti, himself a distinguished X-35 test pilot (the X-35 was the precursor to the JSF). As the lead US Government test pilot he was the only person to fly all 3 variants of the aircraft and he completed the first ever short take-off, level supersonic dash and vertical landing accomplished on a single flight.

Slightly surprisingly, Colonel Tomassetti has not yet been informed of Australia’s intention to base some, or possibly all, of our initial 14 aircraft at Eglin – but he was not in the slightest bit concerned saying that as long as he is given 60 days notice he can make arrangements for any group of trainees to be accommodated.

The question of locating aircraft is potentially more complex because of the possibility that additional hangars will be required, but that is presumably a matter for the RAAF to sort out with the Joint Project Office.

During his personal tour of the base Colonel Tomassetti was able to give some insights into the revolutionary capabilities of the JSF, summarizing the situation as “pilots won’t fly the aircraft: they will tell it what they want to do and the computers will decide the best way of doing it.” He also reflected on the skill of young trainee pilots who have grown up in an era of video games, explaining that classroom work will be almost entirely laptop based, with a minimum of paperwork and manuals. He gave the example that even though video games come with instructions, no-one bothers with these but instinctively prefers an approach of learn-by-doing.

Even at his relatively young age and with a huge amount of flying experience, the Colonel said that when he was flying a JSF simulator he would configure the 2 flat screen cockpit displays to open up 4 out of a maximum of 8 possible windows – but that trainees were able to easily absorb all the information with the displays operating at full capacity. His belief is that this ability to assimilate huge quantities of data will lead to a major increase in the situational awareness of JSF pilots compared with those operating older types of aircraft.

He also said – slightly tongue in cheek – that he hoped that the huge car parks being built to cope with the annual inflow of 100 pilots and 2,000 maintainers would never be used because everyone would prefer to remain on base. His slightly utopian vision is that the international trainee community will have some separate high quality facilities appropriate to their different cultural needs, but they will spend much of their time interacting with their colleagues and will develop a network of contacts across a number of countries which will last a professional lifetime.

Preparations at Eglin even extend to the fitting area, where trainee pilots will be measured for a customized flying suit (delivery within three days guaranteed) and most importantly have their skulls measured for their individually sculpted helmets. The massively capable helmets will be tailored to the head of each pilot – providing full day / night capability (the aircraft no longer has a head-up display), sensor fusion information, tracking and weapon engagement data and – spookily – the imagery from the distributed aperture system which will allow the pilot to “see” through the aircraft.

As Colonel Tomassetti pointed out, there will be no more cases of frustrated pilots hurling their helmets into the furthest corner of the operations room!

Meanwhile 1,000 kilometers away at the Lockheed Martin JSF production line at Fort Worth the pace of activity is also picking up. While still well short of the eventual full rate production of one aircraft per day, the company is comfortable with progress to date – criticisms of US Defense Secretary Robert Gates in February notwithstanding. While some minor aspects of the test program remain frustratingly late, many other elements are now actually ahead of schedule.

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