One could say Vermont Air National Guard (VTANG) Lt. Col Nate Graber has flown a plane once or twice. In fact, he’s spent 3,300 fighter hours behind the yoke of an F-16. In September, he was one of two pilots to fly the first F-35s to VTANG.
The Other Paper recently caught up with him and learned about the jet.
“It is very similar [to the F-16] … and in many ways it’s easier to fly,” Graber said. “It does things that the F-16 couldn’t do.”
To train on an F-35
Graber embarked on his first F-35 training flight in April, at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
The F-35, like most of VTANG’s F-16s, is a single-occupant airplane. But unlike F-16 training, in which a plane with a two-person cockpit is employed, a pilot is alone from the get-go when flying an F-35.
According to Graber, technological advances in the flight simulator aid with preparation. Graber flew just three F-16 simulations before taking to the sky in that jet. During F-35 training, he flew 13 simulations including a “first-flight rehearsal” that mimicked the conditions he’d witness on his first voyage.
“The difference is the simulators are just like night and day,” he said. “[It’s] way better. The visuals are just life-like.”
To become an “experienced” F-35 pilot, a veteran, like Graber, must execute 50 sorties – or missions – totaling about 75 hours of flight. New pilots, he said, must fly at least 200 missions. VTANG has nine pilots through training, and more who are currently learning the ropes at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.
Training in the Green Mountain State
Once VTANG has more jets at its disposal, regular trainings in twos – called two-ships – four-ships and even eight-ships will occur.
The guard has two primary flight areas including an 80-by-100-nautical mile space over New York and a slightly smaller space centered over Mount Washington. A third location, above the waters between Martha’s Vineyard and the Hamptons, lends itself to practicing skills at lower altitudes, Graber said.
Naturally, the pilots train for the skills they will use in combat. Those include dog fighting, using afterburner power settings to achieve supersonic flight, and navigating the aircraft across the night sky.
But, Graber emphasized, afterburner is used over the water or at higher altitudes, it won’t be used for takeoff.
Technological improvements in the F-35 have advanced upon capabilities like those used for dog fighting in the F-16, Graber said.
“Four of us versus four of them is pretty tough in the F-16,” Graber said. “A four-versus-four in the F-35 is just easy-peasy now.”
That’s partly because the F-35’s radar systems automatically gather and interpret information. In the F-16, the pilot had to task and interpret multiple systems.
“Going out and trying to find information and trying to individually piece together four or five different sensors on the F-16, it’s all done for you in the F-35,” Graber said.
Indeed, Graber said the situational awareness of where enemy planes are and where oneself is, is the greatest improvement in the F-35.
“It’s the best picture that you have ever had in an airplane,” he said.
In one F-16 training, Graber flew across the Nevada sky with nearly 100 other airborne jets. He knew for certain where four planes were, had a general idea of where 10 were, but had only vague directions on the rest of the planes. In the F-35, he said, a pilot can see where “everybody is.”
“That is the coolest thing,” Graber said, “because ... the anxiety of not knowing where stuff is, especially if it can shoot at you, can be nerve-wracking to say the least.”
But there are some tradeoffs between the F-16 and the F-35. According to Graber, the F-35 “doesn’t turn as hard as long as the F-16.” But, he said, it can sneak up on the F-16, so it doesn’t need those capabilities.
“I would give that up hands-down to get everything you gain,” he said. “Like any aircraft, it can’t be everything to everybody, there’ll always be some compromise in there.”
Differences between the F-16 and F-35
Technology is what really sets the two jets apart.
One difference is found in the plane’s nighttime flying capabilities.
In the F-16, pilots donned night vision goggles to enhance their vision.
“Straight out of the movies, these two like binocular things that stick out … and it turns, you know, green,” Graber said. “We called it looking through the soda straw, it had a pretty narrow field of view.”
The goggles were also heavy, bulky and required batteries, he said. But now they might become a distant memory.
“In the F-35 we don’t necessarily have a night vision goggle,” Graber said. “There’s a night vision camera that takes the same type of image and then displays it on your visor.”
Pilots get a wider field of view thanks to that advancement as well as six cameras on the exterior of the jet, which film on the infrared spectrum and project on the pilot’s visor.
“[In the F-35] You can look through the cockpit,” Graber said. “There’s cameras all around, it creates a 360-degree view.”
A pilot can look over their shoulder or through their legs and see the sky or the ground beneath them through the image. Of course, he added, it’s not a hologram, the pilot still sees the cockpit with their eyes. But it’s a definite advantage.
“Depending on what type of missile is being shot at you they usually come from, like, right underneath the jet,” Graber said. “If you had a system [to look through the floor] that’s helpful.”
But like the F-16 before it, the F-35 isn’t perfect.
If there are eight planes scheduled to fly, the guard has two more waiting in the wings. It’s not unusual for a pilot to have to change planes, Graber said.
“Typically, out of those eight guys one of them will probably go to a spare,” he added. “It could be anywhere from ... a glitch to, I mean to be honest, sometimes a more major problem.”
A small glitch could be something like a camera not displaying an image on the pilot’s visor. Those sometimes correct themselves. Other problems could occur in either the vehicle systems like brakes and the engine, or in mission systems used for tactical matters.
“The biggest difference between F-16 and F-35 is the level of technology that is in there,” Graber said. “Whereas in the F-16 the troubleshooting typically would lie with the hardware, in many cases the fix on the F-35… it’s more of a software fix.”
And yes, the IT phrase, “have you tried turning it off and back on again,” can be applied to multimillion-dollar Air Force technology.
If the plane’s computers don’t boot up properly, guardsmen reboot them. But, Graber said, that’s not a frequent occurrence. He witnessed it down in Florida, where the F-35s were a decade old and had received several upgrades in technology that weren’t original to the plane.
The jets VTANG is receiving are “fresh off the line,” Graber said, adding that the plane has come a long way in 10 years.
“We have a lot of processes and procedures,” he said. “Much of our training revolves around troubleshooting and making sure ... that it’s a safe airplane, not just marginally safe.”
Why the Green Mountain Boys?
VTANG is the first Air Guard base to field the F-35. And Graber says that’s got a bit to do with reputation.
“I think the reason Vermont got picked, I definitely don’t know about the politics, I just try to steer clear of it,” he said, “we really do have the best group of, not just pilots, but the maintenance folks.”
He explained how back in 2016 VTANG deployed, on two-week’s notice, to Iraq and Syria.
“We were flying eight hours a day every other day … it was a punishing deployment, but it was one of the most rewarding,” he said. “I think we got picked [for the F-35 mission] because of stuff like that.”
Graber is eager to get more planes on base. With just two currently on base it is hard to do team trainings, he said. Delays have disrupted the anticipated two-jet-per-month through June arrival. But Graber believes the base could get three or four jets by the first week of December.
“When we take off as singletons, we’re kind of like, ‘Okay, can’t wait for next month when we start getting to fly together,’” he said.