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Air Guard's first F-35 Lightning II pilots ready to take flight, make history

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- When military aviators of the future look back at the beginnings of the F-35 Lightning II program, they may see the names of two Florida National Guard pilots listed among the first to fly the Air Force's fifth-generation fighter jet.

Air Force Lt. Col. Randal Efferson and Air Force Maj. Jay Spohn are the only Guard pilots currently assigned to the 33rd Operations Group at Eglin Air Force Base, and they'll soon be taking to the skies to master the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.

Once trained, Efferson and Spohn will help develop the training and standards for other F-35 pilots as the fighters are integrated into the Air Force's fleet of aircraft.

"It is a huge accomplishment," Efferson said, noting that they will be among the first 100 pilots to fly the Air Force's newest fighter jet. "We've been working for the past two years to get to this point, and just on May 3 we were issued clearance to fly initial cadre pilots [non-test pilots]."

Spohn will be the fifth member of the 33rd to fly the F-35, and the second to train at Eglin; about three months later Efferson will be the tenth military cadre pilot to fly. Before becoming fully qualified as instructor pilots, Spohn and Efferson will each have to complete five instructional sorties and one evaluation flight.

The Guard members' initial flights in the F-35 come on the heels of recent public hearings in Florida and Georgia to help determine if Jacksonville, Fla., will be selected as an F-35 base; the Florida Air National Guard's base at the 125th Fighter Wing in Jacksonville is currently one of six locations nationwide being considered as an operational basing site for an F-35 squadron.

Both Spohn and Efferson said an F-35 base at Jacksonville would be a good fit for Florida and a great opportunity for the National Guard, especially since the Florida National Guard already embraced the F-35 program by assigning two of its officers as instructor pilots at Eglin.

"The F-35 in conjunction with the F-22 is the future of the Combat Air Forces," Spohn said. "Air National Guard units getting the F-35 mean more longevity for those particular Guard units, and the continued relevance of the Guard in the CAF as a whole as the Air Force's transition to newer aircraft continues."

The initial flights for the F-35 pilots will be focused on learning the basic aircraft systems without weapons and finding out what it takes to maintain them.

"It is the first building block of many that will eventually bring the jet to initial operational capability," Spohn said. "This is 'no kidding' the very first step in getting to that point."

The F-35 is the Department of Defense's next generation of "strike aircraft weapons" systems for not only the Air Force, but the Navy, Marines, and U.S. allies. According to Spohn and Efferson, the versatile and high-tech aircraft will carry the U.S. Air Force into the next 50 years of air superiority, and they will have the satisfaction of knowing they were among the pioneers in its initial phases.

"I grew up in the '80s when the F-15 [Eagle], the F-16 [Fighting Falcon] and the A-10 [Thunderbolt II] were all new airplanes," Spohn said. "I look back and it's kind of hard to believe that the airplanes that were new when I was young are now being replaced by the airplane that I'm getting ready to fly.

"I'm sure there will come a day when the F-35 is being replaced and I'll look back and remember when it was new. It will certainly be after my time in the service, though."

According to Efferson, he gave up a civilian career and joined the F-35 program in order to take his place in aviation history, as well as serve his country.

"That was one of the biggest reasons that I volunteered for this," he said. "I was a traditional Guardsman in Alabama, but I wanted the opportunity to become part of history and influence the next 50 years. So I put in my application and was lucky enough to get picked."

Original content found here.
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