For a quick glance back, in 2012, the 33rd Fighter Wing housed 22 of the planes by year’s end, with pilots having logged in 739 flights. Likewise, the facility served as an active training center for pilots (26 total) and maintenance crew (500 total), including welcoming in its first class of international students from the United Kingdom.
Air Force Col. Andrew Toth, commander of the wing said, “The 33rd Fighter Wing should double its fleet of jets and the number of pilots and maintainers going through the program next year. Toth also revealed that the base will receive its first F-35C, the Navy’s variant of the jet, and in January, Dutch students also are scheduled to begin training.
Perhaps these are not the most significant changes facing the 33rd Fighter Wing, and its F-35 program, however.
Toth said the biggest challenge facing the 33rd is a sharp turnover in the next year of nearly all of the command staff that has been involved in the project since the first jet arrived. “They have seen the program through to what it is today,” said Toth.
“It will be a challenge, but could also bring some improvement to the wing,” he said. “It brings the advantage of fresh eyes to see things a little different and to be able to keep the program on track.”
Yet, growth of the project is still assured. During a visit to Elgin earlier this month, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the new head of the nation’s Joint Strike Fighter program, maintained that the program will continue to expand in 2013.
“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.”
After a year-long negotiation, the Pentagon recently announced 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, making it the most expensive military weapons program in history.
While there has been much controversy over cost and production setbacks regarding the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program for many years, the significant milestones made by the joint-command wing at Eglin in 2012 is likely to help ensure further government support and commitment to the program’s overall growth and success.