Full Circle: Air Force F-35 Pilots Join F-35 Training Team
The best companies are always built with top-tier talent, and Lockheed Martin just hired the first-ever retired U.S. Air Force F-35 pilots to support the F-35 training mission.
Todd LaFortune and Christine Mau will soon be fully qualified as Lockheed Martin F-35 Training instructors at the Academic Training Center (ATC) at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
LaFortune, who flew F-16s before flying the F-35A with the 58th Fighter Squadron at Eglin, actually helped set up the ATC as the U.S. Air Force pilot training lead there a few years ago.
“I knew many of the great people who worked on F-35 training here,” he said. “I knew what to expect and that’s what made me want to come back.”
As part of the initial cadre of pilots for the Air Force, LaFortune is beginning to see how much the F-35 and the Training System have progressed since the early days of the program. Both he and Mau will have to complete the entire training program again and for LaFortune, roughly 60 percent of the academics are new, as none of the warfighting capabilities and new tactics were available when he was training. Seeing the program develop over time from the military point-of-view allows these pilots to share their real-world flying experience with students in the classroom.
“Any time you can say you’ve been there and experienced it, that new perspective elevates the training for the students,” he said.
LaFortune said simulation is critically important to F-35 training because it’s not practical to train for some scenarios using live assets.
“We have a great airplane that flies easy, and the simulators our team is building are very realistic,” LaFortune said. “We’re not just using that simulation technology at Eglin, these exact simulators are at Hill Air Force Base supporting the CAF (combat Air Force) – that’s a big deal.”
“Staying around the fighter community was an easy choice – training the next generation of pilots who will go into combat with this airplane is important work, and I’m proud to be on the Lockheed Martin team.”
Mau, who has an F-15E background, went through the Eglin courses in March 2015 and flew the F-35 for two years at Eglin.
“I love teaching. You get energy from teaching young folks – in the Air Force, there’s always an influx of youth, and that’s rejuvenating to teach them and pass on what you’ve learned to the next generation,” she said.
Currently in training to certify as a Lockheed Martin Contractor Instructor Pilot (CIP), Mau said having new perspectives in the classroom is good for the students and the other CIPs, but that the overall program has expanded and matured dramatically.
“Having progressed the program and flown the aircraft tactically in a variety of exercises, it’s simply a new angle the young guns haven’t heard thus far in training,” she said. “The F-35’s envelope is so much bigger than when I started flying.”
“This team here is amazing. After retiring, I looked at other jobs involved with the F-35, but the training mission and camaraderie here is second to none.”
Mau’s instructor upgrade was achieved in only seven flights, but today there is a training course and an instructor course with about three to four times the number of rides. She said simulation was key in her preparations to become an Air Force F-35 fighter pilot.
“The people who build the simulators have an important job, because we’re leveraging the simulation capability more than ever – it’s 14-18 events in the simulator and then I’m out on the flight line by myself flying the jet,” she said. “The realism of the simulators is what made me ready.”
Bringing in experts like LaFortune and Mau bolsters the quality of pilot training for students from around the world. For them, becoming a CIP brings their F-35 journey full circle.