Defense Media Network

Eglin’s 33rd Fighter Wing

Three Services, Three Squadrons, Three F-35 Variants

On Oct. 14, 2009, Col. David A. Hlatky began a new assignment that will be unique in the U.S. military and essential to the F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program.

Hlatky is commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing “Nomads,” at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., a component of Air Education and Training Command (AETC).

The first F-35C, airframe CF-1, in flight. The 33rd Wing’s Navy squadron, VFA-101, will be training pilots to fly it. Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin.

Command of any Air Force fighter wing is an awesome responsibility, but the 33rd proffers a unique mix of tradition and innovation that no other wing can provide. The “Nomads” are continuing the lineage of one of the Air Force’s oldest fighter outfits, remembered in recent history for using the F-15C Eagle to rack up most of the air-to-air victories (16) in Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

Now, the joint wing will be responsible for initial JSF pilot and maintainer training for the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy and, in the future, at least eight overseas JSF users. Never before has an Air Force wing consisted of members of three service branches, representing distinct methods, traditions and cultures.

The wing’s squadrons are:

– The Air Force’s 58th Fighter Squadron, “Mighty Gorillas,” which will operate 24 of the F-35A conventional takeoff and landing JSFs;

– The Marine Corps’ VMFAT-501 “Warlords” with 20 F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing versions of the JSF;

– The Navy’s VFA-101 “Grim Reapers” with 15 carrier-capable F-35C fighters.

The wing, and each of its squadrons, will train pilots and maintainers. In the Air Force, this function is performed by a formal training unit (FTU), while the Navy and Marines use the term fleet replacement squadron (FRS), although colloquially most still prefer the obsolete term replacement air group (RAG). Each service branch has distinct and different methods of training. Hlatky’s challenge will be to make this mixture of methods and cultures produce maintainers and pilots ready for assignment to combat squadrons.

F-35B airframe BF-1 hovering during a March 2010 flight. The 33rd Wing’s Marine Corps squadron, VMFAT-501, will be training Marine pilots to fly the STOVL B model.

Or almost ready, anyway: In a statement, the Air Force said that once Air Force pilots complete training at Eglin, they’ll move to Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., for follow-on training specific to the Air Force version of the JSF, the F-35A. The Navy and Marines apparently are also considering an interim training stage between the 33rd wing and a fleet squadron.

The wing’s new job is a big deal for the community in the Florida panhandle that relies on Eglin, one of the largest Air Force Bases. “Our military has enjoyed unparalleled support from the Northwest Florida community,” Hlatky said at his assumption-of-command ceremony. “Make no mistake about it, we know how much you care, and appreciate it.”

Once expected to receive 107 F-35s, the wing will get 59 – the number being constrained by congestion and other issues. It is apparently the only Air Force wing in history with flying squadrons from three service branches.

The first Air Force F-35A for Eglin—the airframe known as AF-7, which is the last “LRIP lot 1” aircraft (for limited rate initial production) was scheduled for rollout at the Lockheed Martin assembly plant in Fort Worth, Texas, on September 17. Officials have not yet announced when the first aircraft will be delivered to Eglin.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...