Two pilots of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) have conducted their first training mission on the fifth-generation Lightning II F-35A Joint Strike Fighter last month after completing a transitioning course in Australia.
This marks the first time that locally-trained pilots have flown a RAAF F-35A and is another step in the service becoming more self-sufficient in operating the U.S.-made fighter jet. The pilots underwent a two-month academic and simulator training program at the RAAF Base Williamtown in New South Wales.
The commanding officer of No. 3 Squadron, Wing Commander Darren Clare, hailed the July 15 training flight as an important milestone in the F-35A’s introduction to service.
“Although we currently still send pilots to the U.S. for training, this shows Australia is quickly becoming self-sufficient and it all contributes to our F-35A squadrons reaching combat readiness as planned,” Clare said, according to an Australian Department of Defense (DoD) press statement.
“The introduction of a fifth-generation aircraft and all of its new systems has been highly complex. It has only been since January that we started testing out how the F-35A integrated with the Australian logistics, base support and local training systems.”
The F-35A is the aircraft’s conventional takeoff and landing variant. The RAAF took delivery of the first two F-35As at RAAF Base Williamtown in December 2018.
The RAAF will receive a total of 72 F-35A Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, at a cost of around A$98 million per fighter jet beginning in 2018 with the entire F-35A fleet expected to reach full operating capability by 2023. At the moment, the RAAF’s fleet consists of 10 F-35A aircraft based at Luke Air Force Base and RAAF Base Williamtown.
The aircraft, “have collectively achieved more than 2900 hours across about 1750 sorties since 2014,” according to the DoD. Initial operational capability of the F-35A in the RAAF is scheduled for December 2020.
Earlier this month, the Australian DoD and Lockheed Martin announced a five-year A$91 million contract which will streamline operational support for Australia’s F-35A aircraft. “This is a significant milestone towards achieving initial operating capacity for the F-35A,” Australian Minister for Defense, Linda Reynolds, said in a statement.
The RAAF has a has a requirement for up to 100 stealth fighter aircraft to replace the service’s aging Boeing F/A-18A/B Hornets. Consequently, a follow-up order by the Australian DoD is expected.
Today procurement cost of the 72 aircraft currently on order are estimated at A$17 billion. By the end of 2019, the RAAF will have received 18 F-35As. By the end of the following year, 33 aircraft will have been delivered.