Meet the F-35s participating in Northern Edge ahead of 2020 arrival

Published: May. 10, 2017 at 10:40 AM AKDT
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Ahead of finding a permanent home at Eielson Air Force Base, F-35s are participating in Exercise Northern Edge for the first time in program history.

And as they've done each day of Northern Edge 2017, the planes will continue to cruise Alaska skies until the last day of the training on May 12.

"These exercises are honestly my favorite flights in this plane - large force exercises, because it really lets the plane stretch its legs," said Maj. Adam Wellington, a Marine pilot and aviation safety officer.

For now, Wellington and a Marine squadron working with F-35B aircraft - a model of the multi-role fighter that specifically allows for short takeoffs and vertical landings - are the ones putting the planes through their paces in the Last Frontier.

"These exercises don't take place that often, and it's these exercises where we really get to showcase what the F-35s can do, so we're all really excited to be here," Wellington said. "To participate with Navy, Air Force, groups that compliment each other, that's not something you can do a whole lot."

However, come 2020, Alaska will have its own squadron of F-35s. The groundbreaking for a flight simulator for the aircraft took place at Eielson in March, following the announcement last year that the base was selected as the home of the Air Force's first operation overseas F-35A Lightning IIs.

As for the planes themselves, while the model of the aircraft used in Northern Edge this year are slightly different from those F-35A Lightning II aircraft set to head to Eielson, many of the features are the same.

For example, general specs for the F-35 include a 35-foot wingspan and 51-foot-long body. The F-35 is also capable of speeds of up to 1,200 miles per hour, as well as unlimited range with aerial refueling.

Data integration and setup of the aircraft also allows for easily consolidating information in the cockpit, too. A helmet-mounted display includes all the info a pilot needs to complete a mission - airspeed, heading, altitude, targeting information and warnings - and is projected on a helmet's visor rather than a traditional display, streaming real-time imagery from the aircraft so pilots can "look through" the airframe.

"It gives you a lot of situational awareness, which is something you don't get with a lot of planes out there," Wellington said. "And, it fuses all of the data to a display that a pilot can interpret quickly."

According to Lockheed Martin, there are more than 400 pilots and 4,000 maintainers who work with the F-35 Lightning II worldwide, including in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Turkey and the United Kingdom in addition to the United States.

The planes are manufactured using 300,000 parts from 1,500 international supplies are F-35 aircraft factories in Texas, Italy and Japan.

The planes' mission systems, which include operating software, electronic sensors, displays and communications systems, also require more lines of code than a space shuttle launch.

"Every day, we're learning something new," said Sgt. Andrew Berry, an avionics technician who currently works on F-35s. "There's still a lot to be learned."

All of the models, according to the company, boast advances in tech and capability, and are referred to as 5th Generation fighters, "combining stealth capabilities with fighter aircraft speed and agility, fully-fused sensor information, network enabled operations and advanced logistics and sustainment."

As for the planes coming to Eielson, the main difference is that the F-35A aircraft will utilize traditional takeoff and landing, as well as air-to-air and air-to-ground operations. The location was chosen after a lengthy analysis, according to United States Air Force representatives, who cited the 65,000-square-mile Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex as one of the draws to the Last Frontier.

“Alaska combines a strategically important location with a world-class training environment," said Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James in a U.S. Air Force release last April. "Basing the F-35s at Eielson AFB will allow the Air Force the capability of using the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex for large force exercises using a multitude of ranges and maneuver areas in Alaska.

"This, combined with the largest airspace in the Air Force, ensures realistic combat training for the (Defense Department)," she said.

The F-35A is expected to eventually replaces the service's legacy air-to-ground fighter fleets.