Saturday, October 26, 2013

Famed Luke Air Force Base squadron is revived

The Air Force reactivated its famed 61st Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base on Friday, designating the unit as the first of six planned squadrons for F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter jets.

A crowd of about 175 airmen, family members and other guests attended the ceremony marking the 61st’s return to Luke.

The squadron, which goes by “Top Dogs,” was stationed at the base from 1994 through 2010 as a training group for F-16 pilots. In its newest incarnation, it will be a training group for F-35 pilots.

The 72-year-old base in Glendale, which has long trained F-16 pilots, secured the F-35 training mission in 2012.

Although the squadron officially restarted with a ceremonial unfurling of its blue-and-gold flag, the delivery of the first F-35 to the base isn’t expected until January.

Additional F-35s are expected to be delivered in groups of one to four until the 61st reaches its full complement of 24 planes in about two years.

Overall, Luke will serve as the permanent training base for 144 of the jets that defense analysts say will be crucial to U.S. military operations for the next 40 years.

The first order of business for the 61st will be to train F-35 instructors and test pilots, said Lt. Col. Michael “Jeb” Ebner, the newly installed squadron commander.

The Air Force is drawing from its ranks of experienced fighter pilots for the current wave of F-35 pilots. That strategy will allow the Air Force to build its cadre of F-35 pilots fairly quickly, he said.

“They’re coming from an F-15, an F-16, perhaps an A-10, so they’re experienced guys. The minimum criteria for guys coming into the F-35 right now are 750 hours in a fighter type of aircraft,” Ebner said.

As a result, F-35 trainees typically will be certified after just six flights. The training program also benefits because the jets, which can reach Mach 1.6, or approximately 1,200 mph, are remarkably easy to handle, he said.

“This plane is by far the easiest plane to land that I’ve flown,” said Ebner, who has flown F-35s on approximately 70 missions during the past 14 months.

By 2015, the newly certified instructors will begin training pilots who will be deployed to combat units around the world to take control of F-35s as fast as Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. can produce them.

Most of the training will be conducted west of Luke at military ranges in southern Arizona and Southern California.

Ebner acknowledged the responsibilities and expectations of taking command of the 61st, a squadron associated with more than seven decades of history and pride.

“That was always the hope when they deactivated it, that they would bring it back to an F-35 squadron,” he said.

The 61st was activated in 1941 and initially was stationed along the East Coast. The squadron moved to England to join Allied forces in 1943.

By 1944, it was recognized as the first fighter squadron in the European Theater of World War II to score 100 kills, according to Luke’s historical records.

From 1943 to 1945, the squadron produced 19 aces — pilots who brought down at least five enemy airplanes.

Together, the Top Dogs destroyed 248 aircraft in the air and more than 60 on the ground, according to the records.

The Air Force deactivated the 61st four times since World War II, but each time, it later reactivated the squadron with the next generation of aircraft.

By the time the current incarnation of the squadron is fully staffed, it will have a pilot for every jet, plus 200 to 300 ground personnel responsible for maintaining the planes.

The second squadron of F-35s at Luke is expected to arrive in early 2015.


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