EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – The best fighter pilots from the Air Force, Marines and Navy arrived in the Florida Panhandle last year to learn to fly the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive, most advanced weapons program in U.S. history. They are still waiting.
Concerns about the stealth jets' safety, cost overruns and questions about the entire program's feasibility have delayed the training and left about 35 pilots mostly outside the cockpit. The most the pilots do with the nine F-35s at Eglin Air Force Base is occasionally taxi them and fire up the engines. Otherwise their training is limited to three F-35 flight simulators, classroom work and flights in older-model jets. Only a handful of test pilots get to fly the F-35s.
"The most-frustrated pilot is one who isn't flying at all," said Marine Col. Arthur Tomassetti, vice commander of the fighter wing and a former test pilot for the F-35 prototype.
Built by Lockheed Martin under a 2001 contract, the F-35 is supposed to replace Cold War-era aircraft such as the Air Force's F-16 fighter and the Navy's and Marines' F/A-18 Hornet. It would also be sold to many NATO countries and other U.S. allies.
Costing between $65 million and $100 million each, depending on the version, the F-35 is described as a generational leap from older fighter jets. A single-seat aircraft, it can fly at about 1,050 mph and, officials say, fight both air-to-air and air-to-ground significantly better than its predecessors.
One version can land on an aircraft carrier while another can hover, landing on and taking off from a helicopter carrier. It carries more fuel and more ordnance internally than older fighter jets, allowing it to maintain stealth, and has the latest onboard computer systems, allowing the pilot to control the plane and communicate with other aircraft and interact with ground commanders like never before.
"From a flying perspective, what we call the stick and rudder is the same for any platform, but when you integrate the sensors, the pilot has the capability to make much better decisions and be much more precise," said Air Force Col Andrew Toth, the training wing's commander. His name adorns one of the school's F-35s.
And because it is to be used by all three branches of the U.S. military that fly fighter jets and by U.S. allies, training and maintenance could be handled jointly. That's intended to save money compared to having separate, parallel maintenance and training groups in each force.
But just as the program appeared to be taking off, it was grounded over a variety of concerns. They range from improperly installed parachutes under the pilots' ejector seats, to worries at the Pentagon that there has not been enough testing of the jets, to ongoing concerns by some in Congress that the entire F-35 program is too expensive. Its projected cost has jumped from $233 billion to an estimated $385 billion, including development. Forty-three F-35s have been built and another 2,443 have been ordered by the Pentagon.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said earlier this month that the Air Force wasn't ready to start student flights at Eglin.
"The plan will be to start flying, not training, but to start flying with test-qualified aviators initially to do what we call local area orientation," he said. "We will build to a threshold, which will allow the training leadership in the Air Force to declare 'ready to train' with other than test-qualified aviators."
Questions about funding, slow production of the aircraft and uncertainty about overall strategy have contributed to inefficiencies in money and manpower, said Baker Spring, a defense analyst with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
Spring said the complicated way the Pentagon budgeting process worked has trickled down to the pilots at the school.
"You have people out there twiddling their thumbs waiting for planes. This contributes to the high unit costs," Spring said.
All of this has left the first batch of would-be F-35 pilots in training limbo. This is supposed to be the first time fighter pilots from all three branches train together and they are looking forward to both the competition and learning from each other.
"All of the pilots here are incredibly talented, hand-picked, board-selected, they are the best of the best and the opportunity to come here is and fly the F-35 as a Marine operator is truly the career opportunity of a lifetime," said Marine Lt. Col. Jim Wellons said at ceremony for the jet at Eglin last year.
"There is so much that we can learn from each other. We in the Marine Corps are focused on supporting the Marine on the ground, even though we have an airplane that can perform air combat and the full range of tactical missions. The Air Force fighter community also supports the man on the ground but they have a significant strategic focus. The Navy is very focused on shipboard operations, so we all have our different strengths and probably weaknesses."
When the school becomes fully operational, dozens of pilots and hundreds of F-35 crew members will funnel through Eglin each year.
"Right now it looks like a large building out here with empty hallways, but we are going to have 900 students soon," said the Marine's Col. Tomassetti during a tour of the largely empty school last year.
Tomassetti said this month that the school continues to wait for a "ready to train" order from the Pentagon. The colonel said he and the Marines he commands are eager to fly new jet.
"We do have F-16s on loan and some of our pilots are going off station to fly other jets. They are flying and they understand that this is part of standing up a new program," he said.
When the Pentagon decides to allow the Eglin planes to fly is anyone's guess, said J.R. McDonald, Lockheed's Eglin-based vice president of corporate domestic business development.
"I think we are close but it is a U.S. government decision and the government enterprise will decide when it decides. The (fighter wing) just has to patient because they have done everything they can do," he said.
"I've stopped making predictions."