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First F-35C Pilots Graduate from TOPGUN

Three F-35C Lightning II, attached to Commander, Joint Strike Fighter Wing, the “Argonauts” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147, the “Rough Raiders “Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 125 and the “Grim Reapers” Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 101 complete a flight overhead Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., Feb. 1, 2019. US Navy photo.

Two F-35C pilots are the first naval aviators to graduate from the TOPGUN course flying the fifth-generation Joint Strike Fighter, the Navy announced.

Marine Maj. Derek Heinz and Navy Lt. William Goodwin are among the latest graduates of the Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor course, run at Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nev. Heinz is a member of the “Rough Raiders” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 125, and Goodwin is a member of the “Argonauts” of VFA-147, both F-35C Lightning II squadrons based at NAS Lemoore, Calif.

The TOPGUN course is an individual-level course that’s designed to take fleet pilots and train them to be strike fighter tactics instructors, experts in the latest advanced aerial warfighting tactics. They, in turn, use that knowledge and skill to train other pilots in fleet squadrons. The latest class graduated last month.

“Our focus on the students that go through TOPGUN is not limited to teaching them the tactics, techniques and procedures that are required for them to successfully employ their aircraft, integrated into a larger force,” Cmdr. Timothy Myers, TOPGUN department head, said in the release. “We are also in the business of teaching our graduates how to instruct other students, so that when they go back to the fleet, they are able to instruct at a very high level.”

While TOPGUN had previously graduated students who trained to F-35C tactics and procedures, Heinz and Goodwin are the first fleet pilots already flying the jet to graduate the course, which used a syllabus developed from the ground up specifically for F-35C integrated operations, the Navy said. NAWDC has gradually incorporated F-35C tactics into the training curriculum as the advanced jet continues to enter the fleet and replace aging Navy and Marine Corps fighter aircraft.

“The Lightning II proved its value to the Navy during every phase of the TOPGUN course,” Myers said, “and its integration with the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, E/A-18G Growler and E-2C/D Hawkeye demonstrated that the powerful combination of 4th and 5th generation fighters, with advanced electronic attack, and command and control, is a force-multiplier against advanced threats.”

TOPGUN graduates play key roles at their own squadrons. “Our focus is on assisting the [Strike Fighter Tactics Instructors] at the operational fleet squadron pushing the big picture tactics and ensuring that everything is ready to go for the first and subsequent F-35C carrier deployments,” Goodwin said in the release. “The idea is that VFA-147 SFTIs can use the standards of tactical execution we provide to train their own people and take that knowledge with them through deployment. We are here to ensure that they are set up for success.”

Heinz is an F-35C instructor at VFA-125, the Fleet Replacement Squadron for the F-35C Lightning II that trains Navy and Marine Corps carrier-based pilots. “I’m still training students to fly the aircraft, it’s just now I have the additional responsibility as an SFTI to bring that advanced training to the fleet, while helping maintain the TOPGUN training syllabus and ensuring standardization of training for all instructors,” he said in the news release. “We are always working to maintain the highest standards of training.”

The F-35C community is still growing its base of pilots and maintainers, after the Joint Strike Fighter Wing was stood up in August 2018 and the Navy declared initial operating capability for its F-35C in February 2019. The program declared Safe-for-Flight Operations Certification for VFA-147 “Argonauts” in December 2018 and for the “Black Knights” of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 314 in March 2020. Both VFA-147 and VFA-125 continue to meet program requirements, pass inspections, and receive certifications while operating detachments ashore and at sea, the Navy said.

“This tremendous accomplishment is yet another step for the F-35C community as we continue to focus on delivering this game-changing aircraft to the fleet,” Joint Strike Fighter Wing commander Capt. Adan Covarrubias said in the news release.

A U.S. Navy F-35C Lightning II, attached to Commander, Joint Strike Fighter Wing, the ‘Argonauts’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147, completes a flight over Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., Feb. 1, 2019. US Navy Photo

The F-35C TOPGUN graduates will instruct VFA-147 in the latest tactics “that will, in turn, be brought to the fight during Carrier Air Wing 2’s first deployment with the Navy’s Joint Strike Fighter,” Covarrubias said. “Additionally, the tactics that were developed during this first F-35C class are currently being integrated into the carrier air wing’s work-up cycle, truly making them a more lethal carrier and air wing of the future.”

Navy officials have said VFA-147 will deploy aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) in 2021, while VMFA-314’s carrier deployment is slated for Fiscal Year 2022, according to the Marine Corps’ 2019 Aviation Plan.

In addition to missions covered by fourth-generation fighters, the F-35C brings increased data processing and networking capacity, contributing to the need to experiment with how to best fight the jets and then teach those tactics to fleet pilots.

The Navy plans to buy 257 of the F-35Cs for its carrier-based squadrons, according to a May 13 Congressional Research Service report on the JSF program. The Marine Corps plans to buy a total of 420 F-35 jets – 353 of the short-takeoff and vertical landing F-35B and 67 of the carrier-variant F35-C – to replace the EA-6B Prowler, AV-8B Harrier and older F/A-18 jets, according to its Aviation Plan. The Marines’ F-35s would support 14 active and two reserve F-35B squadrons, four F-35C squadrons and two F-35B fleet replacement squadrons. Squadrons would have 10 to 16 aircraft, enabling squadron support for necessary shipboard detachment deployments, although the service’s latest Force Design 2030, released in late March, would establish 10-plane squadrons.