NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. -- Nine Air Force Reserve F-35A pilots and 16 maintainers from the 419th Fighter Wing are taking on the world’s greatest aggressor fleet during Red Flag 17-1 held at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.
The reservists joined about 200 personnel and 13 F-35A Lightning IIs from the active duty 388th FW to debut the Air Force’s newest fighter jet at the premier air-to-air combat training exercise from Jan. 23 to Feb. 10.
The Hill AFB pilots and maintainers are working with other Air Force F-16s and F-22s and allies from Great Britain and Australia to participate as the friendly, or “blue air,” flying combat scenarios against the enemy “red air” from the 64th Aggressor Squadron here.
“Red Flag offers intensive training and is a tremendous learning experience,” said Lt. Col. Dave DeAngelis, commander of the 419th Operations Group, Detachment 1. “The aggressor pilots are among the best of the best and spend their days learning the tactics of enemy air forces, so it definitely puts us to the test.” DeAngelis is an F-16 software engineer who is on continuous orders for the next three years in support of the F-35A program at Hill.
“We focus on adversary tactics all the time, so we are subject matter experts on how those [enemy] aircraft operate and perform. Then we replicate that here,” said Maj. Mark Klein, an Air Force Reserve pilot who flies with the 64th AS. Aggressor pilots say it’s a good day when they’re losing because it means the blue forces are winning the “war.”
The F-35 is providing offensive and defensive counter air, suppression of enemy air defense, and close air support against the enemy forces and is performing exceptionally well.
“Our stealthiness is proving very useful,” said Maj. Jayson Rickard, a Reserve F-35A pilot. “We’re striking targets, killing advanced surface-to-air missiles, and getting some air-to-air kills.” Rickard flies for Delta Air Lines and is also on three years of continuous orders to support the F-35A mission at Hill.
On the Nellis flightline, Hill’s F-35 maintainers are challenged to keep up with the high operations tempo and are generating eight-ship sorties twice daily. So far, F-35As here have flown 138 sorties with only a handful of maintenance issues.
“This jet is proving to be one of the most reliable combat aircraft I’ve ever seen,” said Master Sgt. Kyle Kutcher, a maintenance section chief with the 419th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. Kutcher has maintained four different fighter aircraft and has attended seven Red Flags. “This jet makes it really easy for my maintainers because it’s designed to streamline maintenance procedures.”
The F-35 needs less test equipment, offers simplified operational checks, and has better part accessibility than its fourth-generation counterparts, Kutcher added.
“The ease of maintenance has been a real testament to the design of the aircraft,” said Staff Sgt. Justin Willobee, avionics specialist with the 419th AMXS. Willobee is a former F-16 maintainer and said he’s really enjoyed being part of the F-35A program.
“Pretty much everything we do is a first and it’s been great to see what this aircraft can do.”
Hill AFB will eventually be home to three operational F-35A fighter squadrons with a total of 78 aircraft by the end of 2019. The first operational F-35As arrived at Hill in October 2015 and reached initial operational capability in August 2016. The active duty 388th FW and Air Force Reserve 419th FW will fly and maintain the jet in a Total Force partnership, which capitalizes on the strength of both components.