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Mountain Home tests to help determine whether F-35s are ready for combat

F-35A testing and evaluation at Mountain Home Air Force Base

Listen to Major Chris "Trench" White describe the F-35A's testing and evaluation at Mountain Home Air Force base in Mountain Home, Idaho. Six F-35A jets are at Mountain Home Air Force Base for testing and evaluation.
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Listen to Major Chris "Trench" White describe the F-35A's testing and evaluation at Mountain Home Air Force base in Mountain Home, Idaho. Six F-35A jets are at Mountain Home Air Force Base for testing and evaluation.

Flying the next generation F-35A Joint Strike Fighter jet is like stepping out of a Toyota Camry into a Lamborghini, a U.S. Air Force pilot told reporters Wednesday.

“That’s as close as I can give you as an example,” Maj. Chris White said.

When you take off, it gives you a shove into the back of the pilot’s seat, he said.

“It gives you the butterflies right before every single takeoff,” said White, a commander with the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron from Edwards Air Force Base outside Lancaster, Calif. “I smile every time I take off.”

For the past three weeks, six F-35As from Edwards have been undergoing testing at the bombing range at Mountain Home Air Force Base. They are being evaluated under simulated combat conditions to see if the planes are ready for use by pilots at Hill Air Force Base outside Ogden, Utah.

The testing focuses on three areas — suppression and destruction of enemy air defense, close air support and air interdiction missions to attack tactical ground targets — and will conclude at the end of next week. In that time, pilots will have flown 54 sorties on 12 days of flying. As of Wednesday, 34 sorties had been flown on eight days.

The tests also have involved the use of F-15E Strike Eagle jets from Mountain Home Air Force Base and A-10 Thunderbolt II jets from the Idaho Air National Guard, planes that also are used during combat missions.

A report issued last month by Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s operational test and evaluation director, raised concerns with the F-35. He said the planes had a host of software problems and described the ejection process as dangerous. Testers found that pilots ejected during low-speed flights faced the possibility of having their necks snapped.

Gilmore’s report also raised concerns about software systems that failed to distinguish old parts from new ones and that blocked users from logging into the plane’s logistics information system.

The report concluded the F-35’s final suitability for combat likely won’t be known until at least 2022.

The $1.5 trillion Joint Strike Fighter program was designed to provide F-35 jets to the Air Force, Navy and Marines. The Defense Department has already spent $400 billion to develop the aircraft.

Last summer, the U.S. Marine Corps declared an initial squadron of 10 F-35B jets ready for combat. The F-35B requires a shorter runway for takeoffs and can land like a helicopter.

White, a former Strike Eagle pilot, has flown the F-35A for about two years during its development.

“The Strike Eagle is very heavily armed, very much a fight-your-way-in and fight-your-way-out kind of aircraft. The F-35 is very reliant on its stealth capabilities,” White said. “The stealth works very, very well. It’s basically sneaking up on a target before he knows you’re there, removing the threat and giving other aircraft a hole to punch their way through.”

The goal among the test pilots, he said, is to identify and correct any issues that could hamper a combat mission before the planes are sent to Hill.

“Overall, the aircrafts have been doing relatively well,” he said. “There have been a lot of lessons learned. From a project manager’s perspective, as I orchestrate this test, I’ve actually been ecstatic about things. I would have been really worried if it went perfectly smooth.”

Additional F-35 tests are being conducted at Nellis AFB in Southern Nevada.

An operational readiness assessment, based on the results of the tests at Mountain Home and Nellis, is scheduled to be delivered to Gen. Hawk Carlisle, head of the Air Force’s air combat command, later this year.

While controversy has raged at the Pentagon over the cost of the Joint Strike Fighter and that it has taken more than a decade to get the planes built and ready for combat, no pressure has filtered down to the test level to green-light the jets, White said.

“At our level, our job is to find out what are the issues that are going to become apparent so when we hand this off to Hill and say it’s ready to go, they’re not working through the same issues,” White said. “I want to get it right for the guys that I know who are flying at Hill so that they don’t have to learn the same lessons multiple times. That’s the pressure I put on my squadron so we don’t screw that up.”

Testing does not address impacts if a new air mission comes to Boise

Boise has been mentioned as a possible candidate for deployment of the F-35 with the Idaho Air National Guard. Gowen Field was one of 11 finalists to host an F-35 fighter wing out of 205 facilities across the country. The high desert mountains south of Boise resemble areas of Afghanistan and other Middle East locations.

The Air Force has proposed moving the Idaho Air National Guard’s operations to Mountain Home, but Boise leaders and Idaho’s members in Congress have opposed that move, saying the added distance for Guard members to drive to Mountain Home could affect recruitment and have a negative economic impact to the city. The Guard has a budget of about $300 million, most of which comes from the federal government.

Concerns have been raised about retiring the Air Guard’s A-10 mission without assurances the Air Force would replace it with another mission. It’s believed it would take three to five years to decommission the A-10, commonly called Warthog.

There also have been concerns about increased noise if F-15s or F-35s were brought to Gowen Field. Those planes are much louder than the A-10s. Today, six military jets typically take off from Gowen at about 9 a.m. daily, then return about noon. Another six take off in early afternoon and land in midafternoon.

There’s more aircraft activity during the Air Guard’s drill weekend, normally the first Saturday of the month. Any new flying mission would likely follow that same rough schedule, officials have said.