Florida’s Spohn becomes Guard’s first F-35 instructor pilot

Written by  //  August 8, 2012  //  Feature Stories

Major Jay Spohn performs pre-flight tasks in an F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter in July during preparations to becoming the Guard's first F-35 instructor pilot. He finished his last of six flights Aug. 3 to become a part of aviation history. Spohn is a Florida National Guard member and is 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. Photo by Major Karen Roganov, Team Eglin Public Affairs

By Maj. Karen Roganov
Team Eglin Public Affairs

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (Aug. 8, 2012) — 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, 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 about the flight. “It’s what they hired me to do; today’s flight was the culmination of two and a half years of hard work,” he said.

Spohn was selected in November 2009 to be initial F-35A cadre and help pave the way by developing 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.

Then on May 3 the wing 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.

Now being able to add more F-35A pilots to the ranks gives Spohn a sense of satisfaction. He said: “I think everyone feels that same excitement….it feels good to be contributing.”

Major Jay Spohn poses for a portrait on the runway of Eglin'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 flew his last of six qualifying flights Aug. 3 to become the Guard's first F-35 instructor pilot and among the first to fly the nation's fifth-generation fighter jet. Photo by Lt. Col. Randall Efferson

This week 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” he said. And there to cheer him on was Lt. Col. Randal Efferson, the other 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.”

The second and third flights included “a lot of the same plus instrument approaches,” said Spohn. 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.”

On the fifth flight “the wingman and lead pilot switch roles and the IP (instructor pilot) verifies you can teach,” he said. 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, take-off and departure to the air spaces, instrument approaches and post landing to list a few.

Spohn became 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, Ft. Worth, Texas, to be able to perform F-35 acceptance flights on behalf of the government, said Efferson.

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 too are 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.

Major Jay Spohn flies over the training ranges at Eglin's 33rd Fighter Wing July 16 during his first of six flights to become the Guard's first F-35 Lightning II instructor pilot. Spohn will be in the aviation history books as among the first to fly the Air Force's fifth-generation fighter jet. Spohn's wingman made the photos from a chase F-16. Photo by Lt. Col. Eric Smith

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 at Eglin July 23 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. “Both countries pilots’ would begin F-35 training soon thereafter.”

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,” said Spohn. “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.

“The success of Maj. Spohn is proof of years of effort put into our current F-35 program,” said Toth. “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.”