HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah --
For U.S. Air Force combat pilots, a culture of continuous improvement is the key to success in combat, especially when developing and honing tactics with a fairly new weapon system.
The 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, is the Air Force’s first combat-capable F-35A Lightning II wing. It declared Full Warfighting Capability in January 2020. The wing, alongside the Reserve 419th Fighter Wing, flies 50-100 sorties every day, training and developing leaders.
“We only have one person in that cockpit. You have to be able to think on your own and make critical decisions that affect an entire formation in a split second,” said Col. Steven Behmer, 388th Fighter Wing commander. “Those are the type of Airmen we’re developing every day.”
A variety of training missions are flown: offensive and defensive counter-air, suppression of enemy air defenses, and escorting other aircraft are the F-35A’s bread and butter, said Lt. Col. Michael Blauser, 388th Operations Group deputy commander.
The training sorties that depart and return to Hill nearly every day are usually in groups of 8, 10, or 12 aircraft. These groups are broken into two or four-ship formations, each with different training objectives for the pilots.
The objectives for each pilot are typically driven by three things: a training syllabus, the integrated wing training plan and specific preparation requirements for deployments or large exercises.
“I showed up at Hill just after graduating the basic F-35 course. It’s the only fighter I’ve flown and the course is pretty simulator heavy,” said Capt. Grant Schwartz, a pilot with the 4th Fighter Sqaudron. “We started training for Red Flag and then immediately went to Nellis. It was eye-opening to have that be my first experience as a fighter pilot and to see the capabilities the F-35 brings and contributes to the fight.”
In addition to specific deployment preparations, each pilot has training requirements based on where they are in their development.
“The need for progression as a fighter pilot never stops,” said Blauser. “From the day you leave the basic fighter course, you’re always in some kind of seasoning.”
That progression in the skill of a pilot – from mission-ready wingman, to flight lead, to instructor pilot, to flight evaluator or mission commander – is one of the Air Force’s greatest strengths, and what will bring the best out of whatever weapon system they are employing, said Behmer.
“As an Air Force, our tactical advantage is that we develop Airmen who can think critically, make real-time decisions and get off-script when they need to,” said Behmer. “From the youngest wingman, we ask them and train them to think outside the box to solve tactical problems.”
Simulator and reality
One training tool is the simulator. There are six at Hill AFB, linked together, that pilots use every day to progress in their training. The simulator bays are exact replicas of a cockpit. Pilots climb inside. The cockpit moves forward on rails into a 360 degree dome, “like being inside a snow globe,” said Schwartz.
For brand-new wingmen, a simulator session may just be taxiing, using the radio, taking off and landing in Hill’s airspace. For more experienced wingmen, a session may be facing a complex scenario with multiple high-end threats built in – some that aren’t even available to train against in real life.
“It provides a great sense of realism and it is a cost-effective way to get repetition on things we can’t always do during a live sortie, like an engine failure or flying against more advanced threats,” said Blauser.
Compare the simulator to a weekday football practice. You’re going through the plays. You may be wearing pads. You’re getting close to full speed, but you’re not getting hit, and nothing can replicate full-contact Sunday football, said Behmer.
“In the simulator, you can make a bad decision. They just reboot it. That’s not how it happens in real life,” said Behmer. “We use the simulator to run the plays over and over again. When you get into a real-life dynamic environment and you see something there you didn’t expect, at least you’ve seen that defensive scheme before, and you are now able to audible into something more successful.”
“That’s what we’re trying to perfect here, Airmanship. Some of the building blocks can be developed in the simulator, but you cannot replicate that seat-of-your-pants feeling, when the hair on the back of your neck stands up, and you know your life is in danger, and you’ve got to make split-second decisions,” said Behmer.
The success of the F-35A, which processes and displays information faster than the human brain can comprehend, is dependent on pilots who can filter and focus that data on the mission, make risk-assessments and those quick judgment calls. The more the wing can develop that kind of Airmanship, the brighter the future for the weapon system, said Behmer.
“It is human nature to try to apply what you’ve learned in previous airplanes, but this is not the F-16. It’s not the A-10,” said Behmer. “With the F-35, you have to change your assumptions, and that leads to better tactics that fit the new capabilities this aircraft provides. As they progress with this aircraft, our young Airmen will continue to unlock that potential.”