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February, 2013, Page 110
Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force, Randy Gon
The F-35A Lightning II joint strike fighter lifts off for its first-ever training sortie last March at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The F-35 squadrons are expected to arrive at Luke Air Force Base by the end of 2013 or early 2014.
The arrival of the world’s most advanced stealth fighter jets at Luke Air Force Base could signal a sonic boom for the Valley’s economy.
As sleek and deadly as a great white shark, faster than a speeding bullet, and with a radar signature somewhere between that of a marble and a beach ball, the F-35 Lightning II is the fighter jet on which the United States has bet its air supremacy for the next 30 years.
With its radar-absorbing mesh skin, the F-35 can slip through the most sophisticated air defenses at close to twice the speed of sound and drop a smart bomb into an Al Qaeda bunker without registering on a single radar screen. Zooming back to base at 1,200 mph, the Lightning can fire off up to four air-to-air missiles before the poor enemy pilots know they’re in a dogfight. Different versions of the stealth jet can land on aircraft carriers or vertically on a raggedy runway in the middle of nowhere and jam the electronics of any enemy aircraft or missile system known to exist.
“It’s a quantum leap,” U.S. Air Force pilot Major Matt Johnston says. “The F-35 can accomplish missions impossible for any other aircraft.”
Currently based at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where he flies one of the roughly five dozen production-model F-35s in existence, Johnston will soon relocate to Luke Air Force Base to train a new generation of F-35 pilots. Along with Johnston and the F-35s could come an estimated $17 million annually in tax revenue, as much as $110 million in federal money toward expanding Luke’s facilities, about 2,300 construction jobs, and about 1,000 full-time jobs, according to a military environmental impact statement.
“It was a great day for Luke,” James “Rusty” Mitchell, director of the base’s Community Initiatives Team and a veteran F-16 pilot, says of the date last summer when Luke won the stiff competition to host the jets. “We’re the envy of the Air Force when it comes to community support.”
In recent years, Luke has experienced a slow decline in employment as the Air Force has reduced its fleet of F-16s, the single-engine fighter jet that for 30 years has formed the spine of the nation’s air defenses. The arrival of the F-35 training program around the end of 2013 will ensure the long-term future of the West Valley base, which injects between $1 billion and $2 billion annually into the local economy.
Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.
Air Education and Training Command commander General Edward Rice speaks at the F-35 Lightning II rollout ceremony on August 26 at Eglin Air Force Base.
But the most expensive fighter jet in history has attracted its share of controversy: Some West Valley residents are concerned about increased noise from the F-35s, military officials worldwide have balked at their exorbitant cost, and governments have questioned whether their stealth technology is a strategic necessity or overpriced overkill.
Stretched over 1,500 acres in the West Valley, Luke Air Force Base is home to 7,500 service members, plus 15,000 family members. Since its inception in 1940, Luke has trained more than 50,000 pilots, including 900 who flew the bulk of the Air Force combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. About 80,000 retired military personnel who served at Luke have settled in the Phoenix area. It is the largest fighter wing in the U.S. Air Force, Glendale’s largest public employer, and a source of local pride.
For years, the F-16 has been the base’s bread and butter. With 138 F-16s, Luke at its peak turned out about 400 pilots and 700 mechanics annually. Thanks in part to the expertise of the generations of Luke-trained mechanics, the F-16 fleet has flown some 6 million hours and earned an impressive reliability record: The USAF has lost only four F-16s in combat, and an F-16 has never lost a dogfight.
For decades, Luke’s six-month trial by fire for F-16 pilots has produced almost all the Air Force fighter pilots in the country, plus trained allied countries’ pilots. Johnston, one of the top pilots on the planet, spent years training F-16 pilots at Luke and is one of only eight USAF pilots currently qualified to teach recruits how to fly the F-35 Lightning. Johnston excels in the intense, pressure-cooker process of turning green pilots into fighter jocks able to drop a smart bomb in the back of a pickup truck at night or duel with a fighter jet in a 9-G death spiral in a cockpit blinking with alarms and weapons systems. The trainee pilots spiral through the skies, simulating every possible disaster and malfunction, “stacking the bricks” of skills and stress until they can calmly do four things at once in a cockpit filled with smoke. They learn special breathing techniques and wear pressurized suits that automatically inflate so they don’t pass out during turns so tight that G-forces make a 180-pound pilot weigh the equivalent of 1,600 pounds.
But despite the F-16’s success, the existing fleet has already flown more than five years beyond its designed life span, making the planes vulnerable to structural cracks. So far, upgrades, retrofits and expert maintenance have kept the fleet in the air. The Air Force has set aside a number of “Block 50” version F-16s at a Fort Worth, Texas facility, where engineers subject the aging airframes to all manner of structural torture to find out how far they can push the F-16s without endangering pilots. The Air Force hopes to keep the F-16 fleet in the air for another decade, gradually replacing them with the stealth-equipped F-35.
F-35s flank an F-16. For decades, Luke Air Force Base has been the country’s primary training ground for F-16 pilots and was recently awarded the coveted F-35 pilot training program.
The United States has labored to perfect stealth technology for decades, starting in 1986 with the B-1 bomber, designed to penetrate Soviet air defenses. A series of expensive and glitch-bedeviled stealth jets followed, culminating in the military-wide Joint Strike Fighter effort to design a jet-of-all-trades that could replace the Air Force’s F-16, A-10 and F-15, plus the Navy’s F-18 and the Harrier Jump Jet used by the Marines. The competition for one of the biggest airplane-building contracts in history pitted Lockheed Martin against Boeing, with Lockheed Martin winning the do-or-die contract to build the F-35s in 1996.
Tests suggest the F-35 should prove eight times as effective as the F-16 in air-to-air combat and three times as effective in taking out anti-aircraft defenses – the two essential steps in establishing air supremacy. The F-35 includes a bewilderment of weapons systems, including radar-homing air-to-air missiles, heat-seeking sidewinders, and MBDA Meteor missiles, which can go after targets far beyond visual range and cope with radar-jamming defensive systems while locked onto a turning jet. The F-35 can launch a missile that can zero in on a ground target 60 miles away using satellite signals, radar and infrared sensors. Many of its warheads can split apart at the last second to hit multiple targets. The jet’s Long Range Anti-Ship Missile can cruise for 500 miles and foil ships’ electronic and anti-missile defenses. The F-35 can even deliver nuclear bombs and missiles, including the B61 – a bomb with 23 times the power of the weapon that destroyed Hiroshima.
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