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F-35A wingmen navigate challenges of Red Flag, build confidence under pressure

  • Published
  • By Micah Garbarino
  • 388th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

For Benn Hawkins, his first solo flight provided the ultimate form of freedom – being untethered from the earth, in control, moving freely in three dimensions.

“I was hooked, I never wanted to do anything else. It was the ultimate. I was convinced there was no better job in the world,” Hawkins said.

Fast-forward several years – through the rigors of the Air Force Academy, the meat grinder of initial fighter pilot training, the F-35A basic qualification course – to today. Hawkins is a first lieutenant in the 421st Fighter Squadron, a young wingman in the middle of Red Flag, the Air Force’s premier air-to-air combat exercise.

Those three dimensions of flight have turned into multitudes. The most urgent new dimensions – keep your cool and survive against a very savvy enemy.

Red Flag was designed after the Vietnam War for young pilots just like Hawkins who have no combat experience, but who may be called upon at a moment’s notice to deploy into highly-contested airspace.

During Red Flag, a friendly “Blue Force” -- a variety of fighter, bomber, command-and-control, and tanker aircraft, space, cyber and intelligence assets -- takes on an equally integrated enemy “Red Force” in simulated combat missions that grow progressively more complex.

“It was chaos, controlled, but chaos,” Hawkins said of his first Red Flag sortie.

During each mission, there can be as many as 90 Blue and Red aircraft facing off over the Nevada Test and Training Range.

“We have so much situational awareness in the F-35 and there is a lot of information coming at you. From the radar and the sensors and the radio chatter is going crazy,” Hawkins said.

When he arrived at the 421st Fighter Squadron a few months ago, Red Flag seemed like this “monster challenge” Hawkins would have to tackle. There was a little dread, a lot of anticipation, he said. But he wouldn’t tackle it alone. The squadron’s instructor pilots trained the young wingmen for Red Flag, and that training helped reassure him during that first mission. But, he still calls his Red Flag experience sobering.

“It’s sobering, because you’re in the fighter pilot training pipeline for more than two years and the idea of flying the F-35 is sexy, and it’s the coolest new jet” Hawkins said. “But I realize I have a personal responsibility to go out and protect other platforms, and we go nose-to-nose with near-peer threats, and that is something that you can’t avoid acknowledging here.”

Red Flag’s days are long ones for exercise participants. Each of the squadron’s six new wingmen will fly 11 missions in the span of 15 flying days.

“Red Flag is a sprinting marathon, especially for the guys flying almost every day,” said Capt. William Reams, an F-35 instructor pilot and flight commander with the 421st Fighter Squadron who completed his mission commander qualification at this Red Flag. “They’re off station, flying in a situation where they’re uncomfortable, and getting used to being able to function in that discomfort so that they’re ready when we have to do this for real.”

For pilots, Red Flag is a cycle of 11-12 hour mission-planning days, followed by 12-13 hour “execution” days – briefing, flying, reviewing and debriefing a combat scenario.

“Red Flag has become an exercise that’s just as much about integration and joint mission planning as it is about surviving combat,” Reams said. “They are learning the capabilities of other platforms and other allies so they’re not starting from zero if they’re ever in the position of having to plan during a contingency.”

The F-35A Lightning II is a multi-role platform with low observability, advanced radar and sensors that allow it to take on a variety of mission sets. Generally, F-35 pilots are working in the more contested areas “sniffing out targets,” suppressing enemy air defenses, and passing information that makes the entire Blue Force more lethal and survivable.

“Our role in the F-35 can be about five different things at any given time,” said Hawkins. “The amount of information it can process and lay out in front of me is impressive. The skill as a pilot is to take that information and set priorities and execute on them. My first mission wasn’t perfect, it’s never going to be perfect. But it was amazing and eye-opening how capable the F-35 is.”

Hawkins says Red Flag has not only confirmed his confidence in the F-35, but also in his fellow wingmen and the joint force as a whole.

“It’s not a fake sense of confidence. I need it. I have to be confident as a combat-ready wingman to be able to carry out what is being asked of me from my squadron, my wing and the rest of the joint force,” Hawkins said. “We all feel a personal responsibility to be ready and that’s what I hope to leave Red Flag with.”