Luke’s F-35s always visible in the Glendale sky
By Steve Stockmar
When he’s not flying at 9 Gs in the skies high above Luke Air Force Base, Major Will Andreotta is just a regular guy driving around Glendale with his kids in a minivan. Yes, he observes the posted speed limits.
But when he is working, as director of operations at Luke’s training center, which is the world’s hub for F-35 fighter jets, Maj. Andreotta is on daily display for all of the West Valley, as one of the pilots always visible zooming overhead in the skies above.
“It’s awesome. It’s a blast,” he said, during a recent chat on the flight line at Luke. “Sometimes you have to pinch yourself. You forget that you have a pretty awesome job. But at the end of the day it’s also a big responsibility to do what we do as well, so we don’t take it lightly.”
Luke trains 75 percent of the world’s F-35 pilots, and graduates some 105 pilots per year on the latest stealth jet.
“The F-35A is the U.S. Air Force’s latest fifth-generation fighter,” Luke Air Force Base’s official website notes. “It will replace the U.S. Air Force’s aging fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons and A-10 Thunderbolt II’s, which have been the primary fighter aircraft for more than 20 years, and bring with it an enhanced capability to survive in the advanced threat environment in which it was designed to operate.”
In other words, Maj. Andreotta adds, “Stealth is a complete game-changer. We can go places other people can’t go.”
He’s been at Luke for eight years now, having arrived via his previous station in Aviano Air Base, Italy. Initially Maj. Andreotta came to Luke as an F-16 pilot, but the F-35s were just coming in, and he’s been flying those for the past five years as an instructor.
When not in the air, he leads training in Luke’s 155,000-square foot facility that contains classrooms and simulators with the latest technology and teaching methods.
“When I went through training, (we were) looking through paper, textbooks, workbooks and highlighting. We’ve gone away from that. Now, everybody sits at their own desk with their own computer. We have a 40-inch screen TV in front of them that’s touchscreen just like the jet is. They have all the controls there. So they can look and be taught a lesson and actually be doing the same thing that the instructor is doing,” he explained. “By the time you get to the aircraft you feel like you’ve flown it before. And it really is a simple plane to fly.”
The jet’s specs are eye-popping. Not only can the F-35 go from 50,000 feet in altitude down to 500 in just 30 seconds, each checks in at a cool cost of $93 million apiece.
“We’re the front-line defense,” he said, during a walking tour of the F-35. “We can do air-to-air — anything from lining up with other aircraft and going at them, shooting them down, protecting our points that we need to on the ground — to going into those heavily-protected areas of countries that have really capable systems on the ground and fighting our way through them to take those out so we can bring in all the other assets and all other planes that can’t do what we can do.”
As for the air traffic that West Valley residents are well accustomed to seeing and hearing overhead, just what are those pilots doing up in the air during a typical day?
Daily flights start around 7:30 a.m. and usually wrap up at sunset. Some training requires nighttime flights but not too much, and there’s also no flying on the weekends, with consideration for the community.
By the time Glendale residents see and hear the jets overhead, Maj. Andreotta says, they’re usually just arriving back or just departing on a mission. “The pattern,” as he calls it, includes the local area within five miles of Luke, which is reserved for initial rides for pilots in training, including how to get around in them at first, how to land, or how to troubleshoot emergency procedures.
Most of the training action takes place far from Glendale in separate airspace so as to not interfere with general aviation and airliners.
Pilots will leave Luke and head to northern spots like Wickenburg, Yarnell, Lake Havasu, Prescott, Kingman or Flagstaff. (For the record, Maj. Andreotta notes that an F-35 can make it from Luke to Flagstaff in about 15 minutes.) Training airspace also goes as far south as Gila Bend or to the Mexican border, and to Yuma and Tucson.
“It’s huge. It’s a good chunk of airspace,” he said. “That is why Luke is so important, and that is why the local community is great. That is why we do all the training here. That is why we are the biggest fighter wing in the world, here at Luke Air Force Base. It’s because of the airspace and how great the local community is; the airspace that we’ve gotten, and being able to train F-16 and now F-35 pilots.”
Speaking of those 9 Gs, Maj. Andreotta had just hit that mark from his cockpit earlier that morning before he returned to the classroom to focus on instructing.In other words, just another day at the office.
“It’s just a lot of weight. It just feels like a lot of weight is on you,” he described of the epic velocity. “It’s harder to do everything. Harder to talk, harder to move. But with training, you can basically overcome that. It just becomes second nature to us.”