Pilot can’t wait to get his hands on Air Force’s new F-35A fighter, teach others how to fly it

By Mark Abramson, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Thursday, February 12, 2009

Air Force Maj. Bill Betts is as excited as a teenager about to take his first car out for a spin. Betts is one of the first 10 Air Force pilots who will sit behind the wheel of the service’s next fighter plane: the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter.

Betts, who is now attending the United Kingdom’s Joint Staff College in Shrivenham and usually flies F-16s, will be one of the first instructor pilots on the plane. The F-35, which is expected to enter service in 2013, is intended to replace the F-16 and A-10 in the Air Force.

The Navy and Marines are getting their own version of the single-seat stealth fighter. And the aircraft — depending on the variant — has a price tag of somewhere in the $60 million to $90 million-plus range.

Betts said once he heard the Air Force was searching its ranks for F-35 instructor pilots, he had to submit a one-page resume highlighting his career. His previous instructor experience was a three-year stint as a flight instructor at a weapons school at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

"I was tremendously excited. I couldn’t believe it," Betts said about being chosen. "I told my wife (Jennifer) and she went screaming through the house."

Betts said that although he is looking forward to his new assignment, his only introduction to the F-35 was Googling it and seeing pictures of the aircraft. What he said he does know is it will be more advanced than the F-16s in which he has logged about 1,800 hours.

"It is a generation beyond. The physical demands will be very similar … the avionics will be quite a bit different," Betts said. "Its capability will probably be a leap ahead."

The F-35 is also radically advanced compared to the F-16 and other aircraft, said John Kent, a spokesman for the aircraft’s producer, Lockheed Martin. It has sensors that transmit data and imagery to the pilot’s helmet, which will allow him or her to see an image of the ground when the pilot looks down.

The Lightning IIs, as the aircraft is known, will also have a longer combat range than the aircraft it is replacing as well as other advances, Kent said.

Although the first Air Force F-35 squadrons won’t be taking to the skies until 2013, Betts was told he will start his new job sometime in 2010 between January and September. He said he expects that it will take six months to train pilots to fly the plane.

"We basically have to figure out how to fly it and how we want to teach other people to fly it," Betts said.

Unlike some other aircraft, however, there are no plans to build a two-seat trainer version, and there is no need for that, Kent said.

"The (test) pilots who fly the F-35 say it flies exactly like the simulator," Kent said. "It is almost like if you blindfolded yourself, you wouldn’t know which one you are in. You are using the same flight-control software that is in the airplane."

Ellie