53rd Wing begins F-35 operational test, evaluation Published Dec. 13, 2018 By Maj. Ashley Conner 53rd Wing Public Affairs EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron kicked off the Defense Department’s F-35 Lightning II Initial Operational Test and Evaluation with a large force employment sortie from Edwards AFB, California, Dec. 5. “The sorties consisted of seven F-35s performing both offensive counter air, suppression of enemy air defenses and air attack operations. This marks an important milestone for the F-35 program,” said Lt. Col. Nicholas Ihde, 31st TES commander. During the IOT&E phase, the 31st TES F-35 pilots will fly more than 30 missions designed to fully evaluate the complete air system as well as identify technical and operational areas for improvement. “These unique flights place the aircraft in realistic combat conditions with our joint and coalition partners to determine the operational effectiveness and suitability for the warfighter,” Ihde said. The 31st TES has 10 F-35 pilots, 145 maintainer’s and 11 engineers to bring the F-35 program through this phase. If they discover an issue they will work with the director of operational test and evaluation, Lockheed Martin and the F-35 Joint Program Office to address it before going out to the fleet. “As the conduit between developmental test flights and combat missions it is our duty to ensure this aircraft fulfills the need of the warfighter, (major command), and the American public," Ihde said. "We must guarantee that we hand the Combat Air Force a product that has been tested with rigor and is ironed out. An advantage the 31st TES possesses is pilot experience. Most of the pilots have over 1,500 flight hours in various fighter aircraft and previous operational test backgrounds lending vast experiences fall back on and reference in order to make this jet the best it can be.” The completion of F-35 IOT&E will aid the Navy in an initial operating capability decision and will help inform full rate production for the DoD in the future. The 31st TES is a geographically separated unit of the 53rd Wing, headquartered at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.