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Navy presence grows as F-35 date nears

March 16, 2011 (by Staff Report) - In the heart of the Air Force's largest base, surrounded by Air Force blue, sits Capt. Michael Saunders. The former Top Gun skipper and current 33rd Operations Group deputy commander is charged with spearheading efforts in building the future fifth generation Naval fighter.

Navy Capt. Michael Saunders leads a contingent of Navy personnel charged with standing up the first Navy Fleet Replacement Squadron, VFA-101 and preparing the way for the Navy’s newest fighter, the F-35C. [USAF photo by Samuel King Jr.]

If that task isn't enough to keep him busy, he'll also make history March 31, as he assumes command of the 33rd Operations Group in the 33rd Fighter Wing.

The 33rd Fighter Wing stands as the world's first F-35 Integrated Training Center, qualifying Navy, Marine, Air Force and international partner pilots and maintainers in the F-35. The F-35 Lightning II will have three variants to accommodate the needs of each service. The Navy variant is the F-35C.

"The first Navy Fleet Replacement Squadron, VFA-101, is on track to stand up in March of 2012, with the first F-35C slated to arrive at Eglin in September of 2012," Captain Saunders said.

There's plenty of work to be done before an F-35 takes to the skies at Eglin.

"Right now we're bringing in people and equipment, building our facilities, and establishing the processes that will serve as the foundation - not only for the future of naval aviation - but for all services, and our international partners," said the 22-year veteran.

Joining Captain Saunders in this massive undertaking is Navy Cmdr. Michael Williams. Commander Williams leads the Fleet Integration Team of two officers and six chief petty officers.

As commander of the 33d Operations Group, Captain Saunders will lead F-35 flying operations for all three services.

"Once flying operations commence, our first task will be to train the F-35 initial cadre instructor pilots and operational test pilots for the Navy, Air Force, and the Marines. We've assembled an incredible joint team to stand up this program," said the captain who has F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 experience.

While Captain Saunders holds the most visible Naval leadership position at Eglin, he is not the only Navy presence in the 33d Fighter Wing's leadership structure. Navy Capt. Steven James directs the wing's Academic Training Center.

The ATC will conduct all F-35 pilot and maintainer academic training, as well as simulator training.

"Our campus is truly a state-of-the-art facility, leveraging all of the latest technology to take joint training to an entirely new level," Captain James said.

Additionally, Navy Cmdr. Joel Tessier serves as the director of operations for the 33rd Maintenance Squadron. His unit directly supports the maintenance for all three variants of the F-35.

The Bureau of Naval Personnel is currently detailing the Navy's best and most qualified personnel to join the F-35 program here at Eglin. .

Courtesy of Team Eglin Public Affairs

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    Additional images:

    Artist's impression of an F-35C right after take-off from an aircraft carrier.