Work continues to get second F-35 training squadron to Eglin
By JIM THOMPSON | Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton Beach | Published: June 20, 2020
EGLIN Air Force Base, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — A second F-35 Lightning II fifth-generation stealth fighter jet squadron is expected to be stood up at Eglin Air Force Base next year, a move "which will effectively double our operation by 2022," Col. Jon Wheeler, commander of the Eglin-based 33rd Fighter Wing, said this week.
Wheeler spoke at an online defense issues forum convened Thursday via YouTube by U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz. He said the new squadron will bring an additional 24 aircraft and between 370 and 410 additional personnel to the base.
"We're expecting the stand-up of that ... squadron to happen in May 2021, with the first aircraft being delivered in October of 2021," Wheeler said.
The 33rd Fighter Wing commander was among a number of military personnel, economic development professionals and elected officials who made presentations during the forum.
There are, though, some hurdles remaining in connection with getting the new F-35 squadron to Eglin, Wheeler said.
One of them is the completion of an environmental impact study that is part of Air Force basing decisions. The studies cover a wide range of environmental issues, including any potential effects of noise on the surrounding community.
The current environmental impact study, Wheeler said, is actually a follow-up to the 2008 study that preceded the initial 2011 arrival of the F-35 at Eglin. That study authorized a total of 59 F-35s, comprising 24 F-35A (the Air Force version of the F-35), 20 F-35B (the short-takeoff and vertical landing version of the F-35) and 15 F-35C (the aircraft carrier version) jets.
The F-35B and F-35C aircraft that had been assigned to Eglin have moved to other installations, as initial training here on those aircraft has been completed. The Marine Corps relocated its F-35Bs in 2014 and the Navy relocated its F-35Cs last year.
While the number of F-35A aircraft in the new squadron won't push Eglin past the number of aircraft associated with the initial environmental impact study, the second study must be done in part because Eglin is continuing to host F-22 Raptor fighter jet training at 33rd Fighter Wing facilities.
The F-22 training was moved to Eglin following Hurricane Michael in October 2018. The hurricane made a direct hit on nearby Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, which had housed F-22 training.
That F-22 training now is slated to go to Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia, for which an environmental impact study also is underway.
In the meantime, Wheeler said Thursday, a challenge for Eglin is to keep that F-22 fighter training going even as plans are being made to bring in a new F-35 squadron.
"It's the only training pipeline we (the Air Force) have for F-22 pilots while we go through that transition," Wheeler said. "So the same facilities, the same ramp that are going to be used for this second F-35 squadron are currently used for the F-22 training. We've got to stand up the new squadron and keep the training going for the F-22."
Another challenge in bringing a new F-35 squadron online is a lack of "adversary air support" – contractors who fly jets other than the F-35s, used by other nations, or with capabilities that can challenge the F-35 – for air combat training.
"Even with the many assets (military aircraft) that surround us based on our location here," Wheeler said, "F-35 training is hampered by a lack of consistent and available adversary air support."
What that does, Wheeler said, is to often put F-35 student pilots, like those at Eglin, in the position of practicing and developing their air combat skills against only other F-35s. That "does not allow us to optimize the training," he said.
According to the Air Force, the new F-35 squadron planned for Eglin is expected to reach full operational status by the spring of 2023. The Air Force announced in May of last year that Eglin was its preferred alternative for an additional F-35 training squadron.
(c)2020 the Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.)
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