News>Former 188th aviator Spohn becomes Guard's first F-35 instructor pilot
Major Jay Spohn performs preflight tasks in an F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter during preparations to become the Guard's first F-35 instructor pilot. Spohn is a former pilot with the 188th Fighter Wing, Arkansas Air National Guard. He finished his last of six flights Aug. 3 to become a part of aviation history. He transitioned to the Florida National Guard following his selection as the Guard’s first F-35 aviator. He is now embedded in the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base where he is responsible for training up the fighter pilots who will fly the fifth-generation F-35 and will carry the U.S. Air Force into the next 50 years of air superiority. (U.S. Air Force photo by Maj. Karen Roganov/Team Eglin Public Affairs)
Major Jay Spohn poses for a portrait at Eglin Air Force Base’s 33rd Fighter Wing in front of the F-35A Lightning II bearing his name, after he was the first Guard member to fly the F-35. Spohn is a former pilot with the 188th Fighter Wing, Arkansas Air National Guard. He finished his last of six flights Aug. 3 to become a part of aviation history. He transitioned to the Florida National Guard following his selection as the Guard’s first F-35 aviator. He is now embedded in the 33d Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base where he is responsible for training up the fighter pilots who will fly the fifth-generation F-35 and will carry the U.S. Air Force into the next 50 years of air superiority. (U.S. Air Force photo by Lt. Col. Randall Efferson)
9/6/2012 - EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- At Eglin's multi-service, multi-national F-35 Integrated Training Center the integrated concept became even more evident when an Air National Guard member became the Guard's first F-35 Lightning II instructor pilot.
Maj. Jay Spohn, assigned to the 33rd Fighter Wing as the assistant director of operations for the 58th Fighter Squadron and the chief of standards and evaluation for the 33rd Operations Group, is a former 188th Fighter Wing pilot who successfully flew his final of six flights Aug. 3 becoming fully qualified and now able to teach follow-on pilots to fly the F-35A.
"If felt really good," said Spohn, a former Arkansas Air National Guardsman. "It's what they hired me to do; today's flight was the culmination of two and a half years of hard work."
A former Flying Razorback, Spohn was selected in November 2009 while at the 188th to be in the initial F-35A cadre and help pave the way by developing a syllabus for flight training. It was March 6 this year that the first F-35A flight took place at Eglin, with an F-35 instructor pilot at the controls.
"We're extremely proud of the success Maj. Spohn has experienced in the F-35 program," said Col. Mark Anderson, 188th Fighter Wing commander. "He was truly an asset helping the 188th transition from F-16s to A-10s during his time in Fort Smith, Ark., and he continues to be an asset to our active-duty counterparts in helping the F-35 program progress toward operational readiness."
On May 3 the 33rd was issued clearance to fly initial cadre "non-test" pilots, which opened the doors to the rest of 58th Fighter Squadron operators to begin qualifying as F-35 instructor pilots.
Spohn said his time at the 188th flying close-air support missions in the A-10C Thunderbolt II "Warthog" prepared him for his current role.
"I would absolutely say that flying at Fort Smith for three years made me a better [close-air support] pilot," he said. "In an average year at Fort Smith, I did more work with JTACs [joint terminal attack controllers] and more SOF [Special Operations Force] integration than I did in the rest of my A-10 career combined. I did more [combat search and rescue] at the 188th than in the rest of my A-10 career combined. Forty-plus weeks a year we were working with actual ground teams. The proximity of Fort Chaffee, Razorback Range and Hog MOA [military operating area] permit a level of training that is superior to every A-10 unit and, in fact, every fighter unit in the Air Force."
Spohn said his time flying Warthogs at the 188th was so valuable because of the face-to-face interaction with Special Forces JTACs
"That's the most valuable piece of the training puzzle, in my opinion," he said. "At Fort Smith you get to brief with the team in the morning, fly, debrief the first-go and brief the second-go face-to-face, fly again and debrief the second-go face-to-face. There are only a handful of fighter bases in the world that can brief and debrief face-to-face with a ground team once a day. Only Fort Smith affords you the opportunity to face-to-face brief/debrief both flying periods. The value of gathering the lessons learned from a sortie in-person cannot be overstated.
Spohn said the interface with JTACs is a vast improvement from other methods of briefing and debriefing.
"A lot of other units use telephonic debriefs, which always tend to be very brief and, generally, both parties have already decided what the big takeaways were before they make the phone call," he said. "Only one person from the flight of jets and one member of the ground team is on the phone. The other members of the respective teams don't get to participate in the interaction. When everybody's in the same room, you can actually ask that Airman 1st Class what he was thinking when he cleared you hot on that pass and the tech sergeant can ask the 1st lieutenant about how well he could see the orange panel."
Spohn said the 188th's ability to interface with its Special Forces JTACs is due to the 188th's Razorback Range and its proximity to the unit.
"The biggest thing I learned at the 188th that has applicability for the rest of my career is the value of base location," Spohn said. "Working on the Strategic Planning Team, I got to look at and evaluate assets available to fighter bases around the world. Cost of living, facilities, training airspace, air-to-ground ranges, community support, etc. I never looked at or really thought about those things before. It was the first time I thought about the fact that not all bases are created equal. There is a difference and that difference has a remarkable impact on quality of training and cost of training. I got to do a lot of things at the 188th and I had a lot of responsibility for weapons and training ... being involved in that also showed me just how valuable a national asset the 188th truly is. It truly stands out among USAF fighter bases around the world."
Spohn said all of that experience logged at the 188th is paying big dividends now as he attempts to bring America's fifth generation fighters to operational readiness status.
"I was most impressed with the ease of flying the jet," Spohn said of the F-35. "It has auto-throttle/speed hold and a throttle mode for approach that holds approach AOA [Angle of Attack]. Point the velocity vector at the runway, engage that mode and the jet moves the throttle for you to hold your AOA.
Spohn also commended the F-35's autopilot feature.
"The jet talks to you with buffet as the AOA builds," he said. "It's a good heads-up way to assess your energy. Plenty of power for straight and level acceleration, very [F-15] Eagle-like in that regard."
Now being able to add more F-35A pilots to the ranks gives Spohn a sense of satisfaction.
"I think everyone feels that same excitement," he said. "It feels good to be contributing."
Now Spohn is scheduled to train another 58th Fighter Squadron pilot, Lt. Col. Michael Ebner, on the same "five instructional sorties and one check ride" that Spohn helped develop as initial cadre and then flew as a student of his own curriculum.
Along with "getting a feel for how the aircraft handles and several approaches to the runway," Spohn's first flight included some "touch and goes." And there to cheer him on was Lt. Col. Randal Efferson, a Florida National Guardsman assigned to the 33rd Operations Group.
"His stellar performance represented years of dedicated service and preparation," said Efferson. "The entire Air Force Reserve component is proud of Maj. Spohn's accomplishment."
Spohn said second and third flights included a lot of the same plus instrument approaches. On the fourth flight Spohn flew with a wingman.
"The formation flight can be with another F-35 or an F-16 as the support aircraft," he said.
Spohn said on the fifth flight the wingman and lead pilot switch roles and the IP (instructor pilot) verifies you can teach. Then on the last flight, there is an evaluation that includes the student again assuming an instructor role, plus dozens of tasks now graded, like ground operations, takeoff and departure to the air spaces, instrument approaches and post landing.
Efferson said Spohn was the second non-test pilot qualified in the F-35A for the 58th Fighter Squadron, but the third overall since the squadron recently qualified a Defense Contract Management Agency Marine Corps member from Lockheed Martin, Fort Worth, Texas, to be able to perform F-35 acceptance flights on behalf of the government.
Spohn is truly embedded in this active-duty flying wing, said Lt. Col. Lee Kloos, commander of the 58th Fighter Squadron who flew as Spohn's evaluator. But being a Guard member is of no consequence for performance.
"He's up to the task to train our next pilots," said Kloos. "In fact, being in the Guard was not even a consideration or thought. Recently Spohn was key in the success of the wing receiving an excellent in our Unit Compliance Inspection."
Spohn's duty location includes a joint environment with service members from the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
So while Spohn is only one of a few F-35A pilots, overall he is included in a team of seven currently qualified as instructor pilots at the integrated training center. The Marine Corps' VMFAT-501 Fighter Attack Training Squadron is located adjacent to the Air Force hangar and has four F-35B variant pilots.
They are also in the process of training up more pilots this week, according to their squadron. The Navy's VFA-101 squadron here is not scheduled to receive its F-35C variant until later in 2013; their team is now working on its training programs.
In the near future Spohn will be immersed in a coalition environment as well at the training campus.
The United Kingdom received its first F-35B July 23 at Eglin, where it is undergoing initial maintenance under contracted logistics support and awaiting the British pilots to arrive in fall and early next year.
The Netherlands is scheduled to receive one of their F-35As at Eglin in late fall, according to Col. Andrew Toth, the wing commander who spearheads training efforts for the 19 Joint Strike Fighters now here.
So for the future, Spohn will soon be sharing the skies not only with the U.S. Marines and Navy but the British and Dutch as well and he said he looks forward to training with the partner nations.
"It is always a tremendous opportunity, both personally and professionally, to train with pilots that have a different background than you," Spohn said. "I hope my A-10 and F-15C background allows me to bring something unique to the table that will make the Dutch students better and I know that their vast fighter experience will make me a better IP and F-35 pilot.
And that forward-looking attitude seems to be the right stuff for Spohn having been hand selected for the F-35 team while a member of the Arkansas National Guard.
"The success of Maj. Spohn is proof of years of effort put into our current F-35 program," Toth said. "We have a lot of confidence in the training systems and we have a lot of confidence in him. In fact, he'll soon be helping to train me in qualifying in our nation's fifth-generation fighter jet."
Maj. Heath Allen, 188th Fighter Wing Public Affairs, contributed to this story.