The Royal Australian Air Force’s F-35s are getting ready to soar higher into the skies. While the service took the delivery of its 30th CTOL (conventional take-off and landing) variant of the aircraft, its pilots are undergoing training with their American counterparts in the US.
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While most of the RAAF’s fighters, equipment and personnel have returned to their home base at Williamtown in New South Wales in Australia, it still maintains an active joint pilot-training and maintenance presence at Luke Air Force Base in America.
“I feel like we contribute something to the U.S. Air Force training mission by bringing our own unique perspectives, configuration, roles and environments to the mission, just like the U.S. Air Force mission brings that to us as well,” Maj. Christopher Baker, 61st Fighter Squadron instructor pilot and graduate of the F-35A pilot training program at Luke AFB, attests to the importance of the training partnership between the U.S. Air Force and the RAAF.
“I think that’s what’s really useful about it being combined,” he added.
Baker also said that the COVID-19 did indeed affect the training regime, nevertheless, the trainees were quick and efficient enough to acclimate to their new ‘flying computers’.
According to U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Tom Hayes, 61st FS commander, three components enable the successful integration of the RAAF and the U.S. Air Force: the platform, common tactics and the objective of training the world’s most capable fighter pilots.
“Other than the way the aircraft is painted, they’re all exactly the same, so we have that common platform of flying the F-35,” Hayes said. “The common tactic is sharing the same training strategies between the RAAF and the U.S. Air Force.”
The RAAF established one operational and one training F-35A squadron at RAAF Base Williamtown and plans to establish another operational squadron in January 2021. As of October 2020, five RAAF F-35s are assigned to the 61st FS.
The first F-35 was delivered to RAAF Base Williamtown in 2018 and the 30th F-35 is scheduled to return to Australia by December 2020. Seventy-two F-35s are ordered and the last one is projected to be delivered to Australia by 2024.
Both the nations have deep mutual cooperation amongst themselves, with the US Air Force eyeing the RAAF’s new Flying Wingman drone designed and manufactured by Boeing Australia. The UAV completed its first taxi trials on 22nd October 2020.
“It’s more than we just wear the same patches,” Hayes said. “There’s a deeper meaning to what this partnership does here at Luke (AFB) and it has strategic level implications.”