May 31, 2017 (by TSgt. Louis Vega Jr.) - Two Japan Air Self-Defense Force pilots “Koku-Jieitai,” become the first from their country to graduate the F-35 program on May 20.
Members from the 944th Operations Group Detachment 2 'Ninjas' and JASDF pose for a photo on May 18th, 2017 after the graduating JASDF F-35 pilot’s final flight at Luke AFB. [USAF photo by TSgt. Louis Vega Jr.]
The occasion marked the final milestone in a series of firsts made possible by the collective efforts of the JASDF, 944th Fighter Wing, and Lockheed Martin.
"The team worked hard to meticulously build this program from the ground up for this moment," said Col. Kurt Gallegos, 944 FW commander. "I am confident these pilots will take back what they have learned here and effectively stand up their own program making an impact."
The two pilots will take part in establishing Japan's first F-35A squadron enhancing their national defense abilities.
"It is a precious opportunity for me to be part of the first graduating class and I feel very lucky to be involved in the F-35A stand-up program in Japan," said one of the newly graduated JASDF F-35 pilots. "I received a lot of information during the training and learned a lot of things from the U.S. Air Force instructor pilots about how to fly the jet and tactics."
The approximately seven month long course consisted of in-depth classroom academic instruction, simulator training and F-35 orientation before they experienced their first flight. Their training culminated with air-to-air and air-to-ground employment experience.
The graduation was marked by a small ceremony hosted by the 944th Operations Group, Detachment 2.
"Graduating our first two Koku-Jieitai F-35 pilots was a remarkable milestone for Japan, the F-35 program, and the Det. 2 Ninjas," said Lt. Col. Sean Holahan, 944 OG Det. 2 commander. "It validated all of the hard work we've put into building this training program, and exercised the entire system from a beddown and sustainment perspective, all the way through academics, aircraft maintenance and flying operations. In the end, our first two Koku-Jieitai pilots graduated with distinction as being the only two 5th Generation fighter pilots in a country of over 126 million people. I'm extremely proud to call them my friends."
The class graduated two weeks ahead of schedule due to reliable aircraft maintenance enabling the instructor pilots to maximize training.
"Lt. Col. Eric "Bodhi" Puels, worked closely with our Lockheed Martin maintenance Ninja leadership to build a schedule that challenged us to fly at a well-above average rate, while allowing down time for aircraft maintenance," said Holahan. "They really set the bar high for the F-35 program."
The 944 FW will train three more classes of JASDF F-35 pilots. The Foreign Military Sales program also includes training F-35 maintainers with the support of Lockheed Martin.
"I'm just honored that I've been able to be a small part of a world-class operation with strategic impact," Holahan continued. "Over the next year, we will continue to train Koku-Jieitai F-35 pilots, followed by our friends from South Korea
In addition to the Foreign Military Sales mission led by the 944 OG/Det 2 Ninjas, Luke is scheduled to have six fighter squadrons and 144 F-35s. Over the next several years, Luke will be training FMS
pilots from Japan, Israel
and South Korea along with partner nations including Australia, Italy
, and Canada.