Lt. Col. Eric Smith Becomes First In Service To Fly F-35
After flying with the US Air Force for 16 years, Lt. Col. Eric
Smith (below, facing camera) has become a part of history as the
first Airman to fly the new F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter for
his service, an honor he says he never expected.
"It all came to light six months ago," says Smith, who
moved to the 33rd Fighter Wing in 2009 after spending two years as
a developmental test pilot with the 46th Test Wing at Eglin AFB in
Florida. "I was picked because of my test background and the
training I had in 2005."
At Eglin, he was able to apply his experience flying A-10
Thunderbolt IIs and F-16 Fighting Falcons to the test mission
before transferring over to the 33rd FW just as the wing ended its
era of F-15 Eagle air dominance.
"Taking off in the F-35 for the first time, I experienced an
adrenaline rush like I hadn't felt since I flew an A-10 for the
first time," Smith recalls. "The difference this time is the fact
that the F-35 is such a new airplane. If something goes wrong, you
may be the first pilot to deal with the problem with only your
previous fighter experience to rely on. Fortunately, my first
flight went off without a hitch."
As an A-10 pilot, he knew the risks of flying in a single seat
aircraft. "Your first flight in an unfamiliar airplane means it's
also your first solo flight. Once you leave the ground you have the
next two hours to figure out how to safely land the jet."
Smith spent a month flying F-35 test missions to ensure the Air
Force's smooth transition from developmental test flights at
Edwards Air Force Base in California to the training flights that
are scheduled to begin at Eglin by the end of the year.
Smith says the Air Force Materiel Command's training program at
Edwards is designed for test pilot school graduates with flight
hours in a variety of airframes. He completed courses in F-35
academics, emergency procedures via simulator, engine run and
high-speed taxi with three F-35 flights, while an instructor pilot
flew in a chase plane.
Smith says, "I'm extremely thrilled to be honored as the first
Air Education and Training Command F-35 instructor pilot,. It means
a lot to me but more for the 33rd FW who can now execute the
training plan they have been working on for two years. We have a
great team and will soon begin training F-35 pilots and
Smith will oversee flight operations of the initial F-35 pilot
cadre as the director of operations for the 58th Fighter Squadron.
He said the training program here will be more robust than what he
needed to qualify in the F-35.
A student pilot at Eglin will receive approximately 200 hours of
academics, 14 simulators, a high-speed taxi and six flights in the
airplane before being deemed qualified. Technological advances in
virtual reality pilot and maintenance training is the biggest
difference 33rd FW students will experience with the military's
latest weapons system.
"I've got 80 hours in the simulator and only logged nine actual
flying hours," says Smith. "That is a testament to how good the
simulator is. Everything is digital."
Other new devices to be introduced are the F-35's unique set of
pilot flight equipment, including a G-suit, a jacket with integral
arm restraints and a helmet-mounted display system.
"It forced me to change all of my habits when it came to
'strapping on' the jet (for the first time)," Smith said. "The HMD
is an extremely complex piece of equipment that uses two projectors
to display independent images on the pilot's display visor."
The pilot said it took approximately six hours to fit and focus
the helmet that will eventually give pilots a full 360-degree view
around them in flight using cameras located around the exterior of
The F-35 helmet-mounted display system provides a combination of
impact protection, heads-up display information and night vision,
combining legacy aircraft systems into a single unit, according to
officials with Lockheed Martin.
Smith's experiences will be shared among an integrated team of
33rd FW Nomads, who now prepare for a pipeline of students from
three different branches of service.
With the success of 5th generation stealth aviation training at
the wing, the F-35 will provide air dominance to the U.S. and its
coalition partners for the next several decades, he said.
As for Smith, he'll continue to support the Air Force test
mission at Edwards temporarily and return to Eglin as a senior
leader for a squadron to which he personally delivered the first
ANN salutes Chrissy Cuttita, 96th Air Base Wing Public