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F-35 Lightning II News

Former 188th aviator ready for action as National Guard’s first F-35 pilot

September 9, 2010 (by MSgt. Thomas Kielbasa) - The National Guard's first F-35 pilot has arrived at his new unit and is ready to take on the Air Force's newest fifth-generation jet fighter.

Maj. Jay Spohn of the Florida ANG is the National Guard's first F-35 pilot. Spohn, who is a former member of the Arkansas ANG's 188th FW in Fort Smith, arrived at the 58th FS at Eglin AFB this summer. [USAF photo by MSgt. Thomas Kielbasa]

Florida Air National Guard pilot Maj. Jay Spohn, a former member of the Arkansas Air National Guard's 188th Fighter Wing in Fort Smith, Spohn was selected in November 2009 for training as the Guard's first F-35 pilot.

While at the 188th, Spohn functioned as the as the chief of weapons and tactics.

Spohn arrived here at the 58th Fighter Squadron this summer and said he is ready to begin training and honing the skills it will take to master the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.

As the only National Guardsman at the Air Force's first F-35 squadron, Spohn said he is humbled to have been chosen for the position, but is ready to show his active duty counterparts that he is prepared for the challenge.

"I feel it's important for me or any Air National Guardsman or reservist who comes [here] - especially in these early stages - to show that we're as good as or better than our active duty counterparts," Spohn said. "The fact that we are Guardsmen or reservists should be invisible to our counterparts.

"My hope is that I'm looked at as one of the stronger guys here, and I'm going to do everything that I can do to put myself in that category."

Until the 58th Fighter Squadron actually receives the F-35 aircraft, Spohn serves as the chief of Standards and Evaluation at the unit.

When the jets arrive at Eglin, Spohn and the other pilots will follow-up their academic and simulator training with actual flight time in the much-touted fighters.

Spohn, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in engineering from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., said flying the F-35 will probably be a synthesis of more than 30 years of jet fighter tactics and state-of-the-art technology.

"It will probably not be the way we did things in the previous generation of fighters," he said. "But it's also probably not going to be a clean slate where we do everything differently."

Based on his F-35 simulator time, Spohn said he is really impressed with the technological capabilities the new plane will have over earlier generations of jets.

"The capability of the radar is just amazing compared to the previous generation of radars that we have," he said. "You used to have to pull in data from several different sources and assimilate that all in your head. The F-35 does a lot of that for you. I really feel that it is going to give you a capability in the air-to-air environment to know better what is going on around you, and ultimately if you know that you can make a more informed decision and take appropriate action."

Like many pilots, flying is more than just a job to Spohn. It is a passion. He said he remembers watching movies like "Top Gun" when he was a child, and when he joined the Civil Air Patrol in high school he got hooked on the idea of actually climbing into a cockpit and taking the stick of a fighter jet.

"As far back as I can remember I wanted to fly fighters," he said. "Honestly, I didn't particularly care whether it was for the Navy, the Marines or the Air Force, it just worked out that I knew about the Air National Guard."

After college, he joined the Pennsylvania Air National Guard's 111th Fighter Wing in Willow Grove and flew A-10 Thunderbolt IIs from December 2001 until March 2007.

During that time he deployed to Bagram, Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom, and later to Kuwait for Operation Iraqi Freedom where he flew close-air-support missions for coalition forces during the initial invasion of Iraq.

He added that he brings his experience of flying the A-10 to the new F-35 squadron, and feels he can offer a fresh perspective of providing close-air-support missions in combat.

"I feel like my role in the F-35 squadron is to do whatever I can to bring the A-10 perspective to the close-air-support mission," he said.

Spohn attended U.S. Air Force Weapons Officer Training at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Soon after graduation from weapons school, Spohn joined the 188th in March 2007 and was instrumental in the 188th's aircraft transition from F-16 Fighting Falcons to A-10As and a subsequent upgrade to A-10C models.

After transferring to the Florida Guard from the 188th, Spohn began training on the F-15C Eagle jet fighter at Tyndall Air Force Base - a course giving him air-to-air training that would match his extensive air-to-ground experience from the A-10s. Following that training, Spohn arrived at Eglin Air Force Base in July.

Brig. Gen. Joseph Balskus, the commander of the Florida Air National Guard, who served as the chairman of the selection board, which included representatives from National Guard Bureau, Air Combat Command and the Florida Air National Guard, said Spohn's selection to the F-35 program reflected his talents as an aviator.

"The application itself was very restrictive with specific qualifying criteria, and we went through a pool of amazingly talented fighter pilots from across the nation to get down to the final four," he said. "Maj. Spohn's interview demonstrated an incredible amount of energy, motivation, unrestricted availability and desire. This, combined with this background as an aviator, made our choice unanimous."

Courtesy of Florida National Guard Public Affairs