F-35 program at Elgin Air Force Base begins to mature

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Although pilots of the military’s newest fighter aircraft have been training at Elgin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County for more than two years, the program’s growth has been relatively slow.

But recently, training and maintenance programs of the F-35 are gaining momentum — with Dutch and United Kingdom troops joining Air Force, Navy and Marines—and quickly the program will be like any other military flight training program.

“We’ve kind of normalized operations, and we’re getting back to more standard Department of Defense flying practices for all three squadrons here,” Air Force Lt. Col. Eric Smith, commander of the 33rd Operations and Support Squadron at Eglin told reporter Lauren Sage Reinlie of NWFDailyNews.com.

 “I’m extremely honored and privileged to have been here since Day One of flying and seen all the fruits and labors of everyone’s hard work,” Smith added.

Next month, Air Force cadets out of basic training will join the Eglin maintenance school, instead of only experienced maintainers. Marines already have students in the program right out of basic.

New recruits will be a significant portion of Elgin’s plans to become a major training center.

As the number of pilots currently training at Eglin inch towards the capacity goal of about 100 pilots a year, the base gets closer to becoming the “center of the universe” for F-35 maintenance training, graduating as many as 2,000 maintainers a year.

Smith says that the facilities are in place to manage the waves of new students. About 950 will go through the course this year, a number double that of 2013.

With the growth of the F-35 program come a number of necessary improvements. The Marines squadron at Eglin will start moving in June to Marines Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina.

With about 1,800 F-35 staff at Eglin, around 140 are with VMFAT-501, the Marines squadron. By January, the entire squadron should be in Beaufort, taking 14 F-35B models with them.

Eglin currently has 43 aircraft, with a total capacity to hold up to 59 F-35s, writes Reinlie

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.