EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE — 2012 was the year the F-35 finally took off at Eglin Air Force Base.
Not only did the military’s newest fighter jet soar into the sky over Eglin for the first and then the 700th time, but the 33rd Fighter Wing continued to ramp up its training center to become the hub for everyone learning to fly or maintain the plane.
“I think overall as a whole it was an outstanding year for the 33rd Fighter Wing and all the men and women and the accomplishments we had,” said Air Force Col. Andrew Toth, commander of the wing.
Although controversy over cost and production setbacks have plagued the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program for many years, the joint-command wing at Eglin finally was able to meet several significant milestones in 2012.
A pilot took off in an F-35 for the first time March 6. Since then, pilots have taken 739 flights, moving the jet from test flight mode to operational capacity, said Marine Col. Art Tomassetti, vice commander of the 33rd.
The base received its first Marine Corps variant, the F-35B, which was designed for short takeoff and vertical landing, early in 2012. The Marines then shipped off a crew to stand up their first F-35 operational unit in Yuma, Ariz., in November.
The first international students, from the United Kingdom, also started academic training this fall to fly and maintain their own aircraft.
The year culminated earlier this month with a visit from Air Force Gen. Edward Rice, who gave the school the official go-ahead to start graduating Air Force pilots and maintainers next year.
The program also grew dramatically at Eglin in 2012.
On Jan. 1, six Air Force variants of the plane, the F-35A, were parked in hangars. At year’s end, the fleet has grown to 22 planes: nine F-35As and 13 F-35Bs, including two UK jets.
About 26 pilots and 500 maintainers went through the program at the training center.
The program will continue to expand in 2013, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the new head of the nation’s Joint Strike Fighter program, said during a visit to Eglin earlier this month.
“We are on a very, very large growth path at Eglin here,” Bogdan said. “As a hub for maintenance and, at least for now, for pilots, this is the center of the universe for the F-35 in terms of training. This is stop one on the road to an F-35 capability.”
The 33rd Fighter Wing should double its fleet of jets and the number of pilots and maintainers going through the program next year, Toth said.
It also will receive its first F-35C, the Navy’s variant of the jet. Dutch students also are set to begin training in January.
The 33rd faced some unique challenges to achieve what it has with the F-35.
As production slowed and the program’s progress snagged, it fell on the wing to take on a lot of the operational testing and development of a training center to keep the program moving forward.
The 33rd worked to improve the processes and procedures of the F-35 as a whole, while also getting its training program up and running, Toth said.
Bogdan said the wing has done an extraordinary job. Now, his office and Lockheed Martin, the contractor developing the new jets, have a lot of work to do to lighten some of the load.
“We’ve asked them to do an awful lot in the past year where normally a program would have been a lot more mature,” Bogdan said. “We started building airplanes maybe long before we were ready to do that, and as a result we’ve asked the maintainers here and the operators and all the base support people here to do some extraordinary things to fly these airplanes.”
After a year-long negotiation, the Pentagon announced early this month a $3.8-billion deal with Lockheed to purchase 32 more F-35s. The Pentagon’s oversight office also is taking a look at the Joint Strike Fighter program, which could cost more than $1 trillion over several decades and make it the most expensive military weapons program in history.
Tomassetti said as the program has changed and delays in production occurred, the wing’s staff made adjustments and will continue to do so.
“The F-35 world will remain dynamic and we will adapt accordingly,” he said.
He said the wing is in a unique position to feed information back to program staff about what it takes in terms of resources and costs to operate the F-35 outside a test environment.
Toth said the biggest challenge for the 33rd over the next year will be turnover of almost all of the command staff that has been there since the first aircraft arrived and have seen the program through to what it is today.
He, Tomassetti, the maintenance group commander and the operations group commander all will leave for new positions by next summer, Toth said.
He said it will be a challenge, but could also bring some improvement to the wing.
“It brings the advantage of fresh eyes to see things a little different and to be able to keep the program on track,” he said.
In his two years at Eglin, Toth said he has been amazed to see the team of airmen, marines, sailors, contractors and civilians come together to focus on the single goal of running safe and effective flying operations.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the team and the way they’ve responded to the challenges that have been put before them,” he said. “Just to be a part of that makes me so proud.”
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Lauren Sage Reinlie at 850-315-4443 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRnwfdn.