04/09/2013 10:50 EDT | Updated 06/09/2013 05:12 EDT

Pilots Prep F-35s For Active Duty

The fight is definitely on at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle.

Here, the first corps of pilots to be trained on Lockheed Martin's F-35 is packing in as many hours as they can in a bid to show that the plane is ready — or soon will be. By "ready," they mean ready for active service in combat and, by "soon," they mean 2015 — or, at least, the Marine Corps does.

Other services expect it will take longer — but the marines already have their hands on 13 of the jets, while the U.S. Air Force has only nine. And they like them.

"It's not a paper airplane," says the marine commander at Eglin, Lt.-Col. David Berke.

"We fly 'em all the time. We're flying forty sorties a week around here, just in my squadron alone."

It seems that a comment by a pilot at Lockheed Martin's chief rival, Boeing, may have stung. Ricardo Traven, chief test pilot for Boeing's F-18 Super Hornet, told CBC last month that his plane was "the real thing," whereas the F-35 was a "paper airplane...a shiny brochure of promises."

Not so, Berke insists.

'This is a real airplane'

"This is the airplane I'm gonna strap on every day. I'm gonna go fly it at 1300 today. This is a real airplane. Turn your camera out there — there's 13 of 'em, four of 'em airborne right now!"

All true. The interview pauses while a pair of F-35s screams overhead. For these pilots, that sound is real, all right.

"You can feel it the whole time you're flying," says Lt.-Col. Eric Smith, an instructor here who was the first man to pilot the F-35.

"'Just a rumble in the seat of the airplane, a rumble in the stick, a rumble in the throttle, the whole thing just kinda rumbles...it's a fantastic rumble."

Fantastic or not, Smith acknowledges that it's still very early days. They've only been flying the plane for a year, and everything is still so new that his trainees are not allowed to "push the envelope" as they would like to do. They can't fly at night yet. They can't fly in bad weather. They can't fly too fast, or turn too tight, or carry any real weapons. And the millions of lines of software code that the plane relies on are still being written.

Not at full capability

"We're still in the early stages of the software," says Smith, "so it doesn't have the full capability that it will some day. But it's enough to go out and do the training that we did today."

And, after years of delays, Lockheed Martin is finally delivering planes at an accelerated pace, according to the Air Force commander at Eglin, Lt.-Col. Lee Kloos.

"Starting with just a few jets — a few sorties a week — we've now gone to six every day and our maintenance has been able to keep up with that quite well."

Over the next year, adds Kloos, his tiny Air Force group will more than double in size.

"So the fleet, especially in this year, will grow rapidly. This squadron alone will go from the nine aircraft we have now to twenty-four assigned aircraft within the next twelve months."

All of which is of enormous significance to Lockheed Martin, to the Pentagon and to the nervous band of international buyers - which may or may not include Canada. If the plane really does make the transition from the drawing board to the skies, and if the price really does come down, then it just might avoid the budget axe, which is being waved by anxious politicians from Washington to Ottawa to Istanbul.

But the F-35's partisans are keeping the faith. They believe the doubters will come around. As a Pratt & Whitney spokesman showed off the $10-million engine for the F-35, the eye wandered aloft to the flags hanging over the scene.

Alongside those of other buyers like Israel, Turkey and Australia, right next to the Stars and Stripes, there again flew the Maple Leaf.

They're still counting on Canada.

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