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November 28, 2014

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Nellis flier gets pilot project

He’s tapped to master new aircraft, pass knowledge along — a “once in a lifetime” chance

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Leila Navidi

Air Force Maj. Ben Bishop, chosen as one of 10 instructor pilots for the military’s new F-35, stands in front of the plane he currently flies, an F-15. After only two months of training under the supervision of the new jet’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, Bishop will begin flying the single-seat aircraft.

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As one of the 10 Air Force pilots hand-picked to be the initial cadre of instructor pilots for the military’s newest aircraft, Maj. Ben Bishop will essentially be writing the book on how to fly the F-35 for an entire generation of fighter pilots.

“I don’t know if pressure is the term I would use, but there is a deep sense of responsibility,” said Bishop, who is stationed at Nellis Air Force Base. “We’ll set the standard for a lot of pilots to follow. I think we all felt very humbled when our name was on the list to undertake that challenge.”

The F-35, like the F-22, which entered the force in 2005, is a fifth-generation fighter, making what Bishop flies now, an F-15, one of the old-timers, a legacy aircraft.

“I never looked around and was jealous of others until the F-22 came along,” Bishop said, a rare admission from a pilot who is less assuming than most and regularly uses the adjective “neat.”

Developing the F-35 program “is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he said.

And on Monday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates reiterated his support for the aircraft, saying he wanted to speed up production of more than 2,400 F-35s.

The Air Force will start training a few F-35 pilots in 2010 and plans to buy 1,700 of the multi-role fighters. By 2014 about 180 pilots a year will pass through the F-35 schoolhouse at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida to learn the curriculum Bishop and the others develop.

Bishop, though, has yet to even sit in the F-35 simulator. In fact, the closest he’s gotten to the jet is a full-scale model shown at the Nellis Air Show.

He and the other instructors are basically the first set of students.

They’ll have to learn how to manage a new cockpit, according to Joanne Puglisi, Lockheed Martin’s director of training for the F-35.

The cockpit display is all glass and operates as a touch screen that electronically emulates with graphic images what used to be actual switches or knobs. In the F-35, pilots see only what they need at that moment and scroll with their finger to pull up the right screen, such as weapons displays.

Six former military pilots who work for Lockheed, which is building the F-35, will teach the future instructors the basics. The idea is to quickly get Bishop and the others familiar and flying, so they can start teaching others.

They’ll be ready to do so after about two months of training — half the time future students will spend. Bishop will learn on some of the earliest models of the F-35, which won’t have all the capabilities, so eventually he will have to go back as an instructor to learn the new functions as the older F-35s are retrofitted.

And when he flies the single-seat F-35 for the first time, it’ll just be him. Unlike future students, he won’t have an instructor flying alongside in another F-35.

“There’s a reason they were hand-picked,” Puglisi said.

Lockheed has developed the syllabus for the upfront basics of actually flying the F-35, but as far as “Air Force missions, we don’t have a lot of detail yet,” Puglisi said.

That’s where Bishop and the nine others come in.

They’ll teach a wide range of skills as instructor pilots, but as the initial cadre their biggest challenge is to develop the best tactics and techniques for accomplishing what the brass decides the F-35’s overall mission sets will be.

Bishop, a one-time F-15 instructor pilot with 10 years in the Air Force, said all of this isn’t as intimidating as one might expect.

“The fundamentals don’t change,” he said. “You pull back and the houses get smaller.”

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