The best fighter pilots from the Air Force, Marines and Navy arrived in the Florida Panhandle last year to learn to fly the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive, most advanced weapons program in U.S. history. They are still waiting.
|Gen. Joseph Dunford, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, speaks during a rollout ceremony at Eglin Air Force Base for the F-35B as Robert Stevens, left, chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, listens|
Concerns about the stealth jets' safety, cost overruns and questions about the entire program's feasibility have delayed the training and left about 35 pilots mostly outside the cockpit. The most the pilots do with the nine F-35s at Eglin Air Force Base is occasionally taxi them and fire up the engines. Otherwise their training is limited to three F-35 flight simulators, classroom work and flights in older-model jets. Only a handful of test pilots get to fly the F-35s.
"The most-frustrated pilot is one who isn't flying at all," said Marine Col. Arthur Tomassetti, vice commander of the fighter wing and a former test pilot for the F-35 prototype.
Costing between $65 million and $100 million each, depending on the version, the F-35 is described as a generational leap from older fighter jets. A single-seat aircraft, it can fly at about 1,050 mph and, officials say, fight both air-to-air and air-to-ground significantly better than its predecessors.
One version can land on an aircraft carrier and another can hover, landing on and taking off from a helicopter carrier. It carries more fuel and more ordnance internally than older fighter jets, allowing it to maintain stealth, and has the latest onboard computer systems, allowing the pilot to control the plane and communicate with other aircraft and interact with ground commanders like never before.
And because it is to be used by all three branches of the U.S. military that fly fighter jets and by U.S. allies, training and maintenance could be handled jointly.
But just as the program appeared to be taking off, it was grounded over a variety of concerns. They range from improperly installed parachutes under the pilots' ejector seats to worries at the Pentagon that there has not been enough testing of the jets and ongoing concerns by some in Congress that the entire F-35 program is too expensive. Its projected cost has jumped from $233 billion to an estimated $385 billion, including development. Forty-three F-35s have been built, and another 2,443 have been ordered by the Pentagon.
Questions about funding, slow production of the aircraft and uncertainty about overall strategy have contributed to inefficiencies in money and manpower, said Baker Spring, a defense analyst with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
Spring said the complicated way the Pentagon budgeting process worked has trickled down to the pilots at the school.
"You have people out there twiddling their thumbs waiting for planes. This contributes to the high unit costs," Spring said.
All of this has left the first batch of would-be F-35 pilots in training limbo. This is supposed to be the first time fighter pilots from all three branches train together, and they are looking forward to both the competition and learning from each other.
"All of the pilots here are incredibly talented, hand-picked, board-selected, they are the best of the best and the opportunity to come here and fly the F-35 as a Marine operator is truly the career opportunity of a lifetime," Marine Lt. Col. Jim Wellons said at ceremony for the jet at Eglin last year.