25 April 2015
RAAF F-35 Lightning II (photo : Aus DoD)
AUSTRALIA'S first fully qualified F-35 Lightning pilot admits this controversial new aircraft takes his breath away.
SQUADRON Leader Andrew Jackson, 37, started out flying elderly Macchi jet trainers, then graduated to the RAAF's classic Hornets and Super Hornets.
Since January, he's been learning to fly the advanced new F-35, making his first flight in January and now qualifying to fly F-35s and also to instruct new RAAF F-35 pilots.
With 30 hours in his logbook, he says this aircraft and the opportunities it offers are equally awesome and exciting.
"It's awesome to have a challenge and do something new...for the RAAF ground-breaking. It's been quite comfortable as well, based on how the aeroplane flies," he says in a phone interview from Eglin US Air Force base in Florida.
"For the RAAF it's a new dawn. It's exciting to be a part of that."
Australia plans to acquire up to 100 F-35 aircraft but so far there's just two, both still in the US in the training pool at Luke US Air Force base in Arizona - Squadron Leader Jackson's next stop.
Later in the year he'll be joined by Squadron Leader David Bell, Australia's second qualified F-35 pilot and instructor. There Australian and other international pilots will learn to fly F-35s.
Squadron leader Jackson said the F-35 isn't that different to flying a classic Hornet or Super Hornet.
What's very different is the aircraft's advanced radar and other sensors which gather information and present it to the pilot in a manner unlike any earlier aircraft.
"It just makes for a very different experience. You are now looking at the overall battlespace. You have a much greater picture of what's going on outside your aeroplane than you ever did flying a legacy type," he said.
More than 100 F-35s are now flying but the aircraft isn't yet able to go to war.
That comes in the next few months when the US Marine Corps declares initial operational capability,
with a squadron of 10-16 F-35B aircraft capable of conducting combat operations.
Marine F-35s will have a basic ability to drop bombs and launch missiles with capabilities steadily increased as software is developed.
Squadron Leader Jackson said this aircraft was really still in its infancy.
"Obviously the jet we will end up taking home in 2018 is going to have more of the capabilities turned on," he said.
Despite the controversy surround F-35, including high costs, technical challenges and delays, he's got no doubt Australia made the right decision.
"I have a fairly good idea of the threats we expect to face. The capabilities on the aeroplane are quite incredible. I am fully confident we have purchased a good aeroplane," he said.