Every three weeks, a guest speaker travels to Vance Air Force Base to address the latest pilot training graduates.
But none has ever made the entrance Brig. Gen. Scott L. Pleus did Thursday morning — landing at Vance in one of America's newest and most sophisticated fighter jets, the F-35A Lightning II.
Pleus, commander of the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke AFB, Ariz., flew one of two F-35As that touched down Thursday at Vance. The other was piloted by his wingman, Capt. Ian Osterreicher.
Pleus came to town to speak at Friday morning's graduation ceremony for Joint Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 16-07. A large number of students and instructor pilots gathered on the Vance flight line to watch the arrival.
"The thing I would hope we were able to do is generate a little bit of excitement about fighter airplanes and the future of the United States Air Force," said Pleus. "Most of the airplanes that we have in our current inventory are quite old, and to see a new technology like the F-35 come into a pilot training base like Vance, I really hope just sparks some curiosity and excitement about the future of our Air Force.
"There are a whole slew of students that are here and don't have their assignments yet, and maybe they like to fly the F-35, so that would be a wonderful thing that while we're here we can talk a lot about it."
In late March, the first specialized undergraduate pilot training student was assigned to the F-35 from Columbus AFB, Miss. To date no Vance students have received F-35 slots, but Pleus said he doesn't think it will be long.
"I would expect that there will be an assignment coming fairly soon to Vance as well for one of their students," said Pleus.
At present, Pleus said, there are about 120 F-35 pilots in the Air Force. The first F-35 rolled off the production line in February 2006, and completed its first flight in December of that same year.
Luke received its first F-35 in March 2014, and Pleus was checked out in the jet about a year ago. He has spent much of his 24-year Air Force career flying the F-16 Fighting Falcon. He says the jets are similar in performance, but the F-35 is far ahead in technology and stealth.
"It is an amazing opportunity," said Pleus. "It is an amazing airplane."
Critics have pointed to the F-35s high cost, about $100 million for the A model, configured for the Air Force, $104 million for the Marines' B model (which has vertical takeoff and landing capabilities) and $116 million for the C (for carrier) model the Navy will use. Some have claimed the jet would not perform as well as the F-16 in dogfights with enemy fighters. For his part, Pleus says the performance of the F-35 and F-16 are similar.
"It comes down to the technological upgrades," said Pleus. "Both of them are capable of the same kind of speed, very similar amounts of G-forces. They are high-performance fighter aircraft, so they handle like a high-performance fighter airplane does. Where the difference really starts to come about is the difference in technology."
He compared the two to cell phones. The F-16, he said, is akin to a simple flip phone, capable, but with no bells and whistles, while the F-35 is a modern smart phone.
"It's the ability for the computers to provide information for the pilot, it's the stealth technology that's on the airplane itself," he said. "That's really the big difference."
The F-35's helmet-mounted display offers pilots all the information they need about their aircraft and their surroundings. In fact, Pleus said, when an F-35 pilot looks straight down, he doesn't see his legs or the inside of the aircraft, instead special cameras allow him to look "through" the jet straight at the clouds or ground below.
An F-35 ground crew flew into Vance prior to the jets' arrival. The jets were on display for base personnel Thursday afternoon, and overnighted at Vance before they will depart this afternoon for the return trip to Luke.
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