Florida’s Eglin AFB becomes ‘center of the universe’ for F-35 training

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The 33rd Fighter Wing of Elgin Air Force Base is home base for the F-35, and it is not showing any signs of slowing down. In fact, significant growth and progress is projected for 2013. 

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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.

Toth, Marine Col. Art Tomassetti, vice commander of the 33rd, the maintenance group commander and the operations group commander all will leave for new positions by next summer, according to 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.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.