Plane spotters looking to the skies above Newcastle over the past few months have watched history in the making as members of No. 3 Squadron put Air Force’s newest fighter jets through their paces.
Since the first two F-35A aircraft arrived at 3SQN in December, Air Combat Group has focused on verifying and validating the aircraft in the Australian operating environment. This is to ensure all aircraft systems work in the lead up to the planned declaration of Initial Operating Capability (IOC) in December 2020.
The Commanding Officer of No. 3 Squadron (3SQN), Wing Commander (WGCDR) Darren Clare, said the Verification and Validation (V&V) program was on schedule and aimed to continue the development of tactics, identify deficiencies and recommend resolution options.
“Our first two jets are going well, initially flying five-to-six sorties a week,” WGCDR Clare said.
“The recent arrival of another two jets in early April ensures we continue to build the V&V program.”
3SQN is ensuring the whole air system is exercised to confirm the sustainment and support processes work.
“As part of the V&V process, we have to ensure security processes work; the right workforce structure is in place; the training systems can produce quality pilots and maintenance personnel; and that the Autonomic Logistics Information System and reprogramming capability operate as required,” WGCDR Clare said.
“This year we have conducted initial interoperability testing with Classic and Super Hornets, as well as the E-7A Wedgetail. We participated in Exercise Diamond Shield, as well as supported the Australian International Airshow at Avalon while concurrently collecting the next two aircraft from the US.
“Over the next few months we will begin strafe with the gun and close-air support training, as well as conduct some practice cable arrestments.”
A common “rub point” is being physically located on the other side of the planet to the majority of other F-35 operators – but WGCDR Clare said this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“When we identify issues or challenges with the aircraft, we are often physically a long way from a solution,” he said.
“However, this can also be an advantage, as sometimes problems can be worked out overnight Australian time and the answer will be waiting for us when we get to work the next morning.”
Members of 3SQN will soon be moving into their new permanent headquarters building – good timing with personnel numbers continuing to grow. The Squadron now has four pilots and about 60 maintainers and other support personnel, as well as 15 maintainers in classroom training and 15 conducting on-the-job training at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, US.
“We are looking forward to moving into our new building and will continue to grow the workforce as more aircraft arrive in Australia,” WGCDR Clare said.
A35-013 and A35-014 are scheduled to remain at the international PTC with eight other Australian F-35A aircraft (A35-001 – A35-008) until the end of 2020, when they will be ferried across the Pacific to join the fleet of F-35A aircraft in Australia.
Through the US F-35 Joint Program Office, Australia has contracted for eight Lot 11 aircraft for delivery in 2019. Fifteen Australian Lot 12 aircraft are scheduled to be delivered in 2020, with all of the US-based aircraft returning to Australia by the end of 2020.
“By mid-to-late 2020, 3SQN will have its full complement of aircraft with pilot and maintainer numbers to match,” WGCDR Clare said. “This is also part of the IOC declaration.”
Australia’s fleet of 14 F-35A aircraft based at Luke AFB and RAAF Base Williamtown have collectively achieved more than 2900 flying hours across 1750 sorties since 2014.
A pilot’s view
“The aircraft has often been described as a flying computer,” WGCDR Clare said.
“I log into the aircraft with a username and password, and almost everything in the aircraft is managed by a mission computer of some sort. That said, it is definitely still a fighter aircraft and needs to be flown as such.
“The advantage this aircraft provides is a level of situational awareness that is leaps ahead of the Hornets (both Classic and Super) that I have flown. This allows the pilot to be more of a battlespace manager directing other assets as required, rather than concentrating on their own flying so much.
“The aircraft’s sensors and datalinks allow information to be passed off-board to other platforms (not just RAAF). This information sharing is really how the F-35A supports our Air Force in becoming a fifth-generation force.”