GLENDALE, Ariz. — With the arrival of the first wave of F-35 Lightning II fighter jets at Luke Air Force Base just months away, construction is under way on facilities where pilots will be trained and the planes will be maintained.
In all, Air Force executives have projected a $265 million, seven-year construction program specifically to accommodate the F-35 pilot-training program at the base in west Glendale.
The build-up will allow Luke to serve as the permanent training base for 144 of the single-engine stealth jets that military analysts say will be crucial to U.S. air-defense operations for the next 40 years.
The construction is scheduled to be completed in six major phases to coincide with the arrival of six squadrons of F-35s and the departure of six squadrons of older F-16 fighter jets that are relocating elsewhere.
“It’s going to be sort of a Jenga puzzle game for a while,” said Lt. Col. Scott Fredrick, who is heading Luke’s F-35 transition team.
The first F-35 assigned to Luke is expected to arrive between January and March.
Luke’s first F-35 also is expected to be the 100th production F-35 manufactured by Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., in Fort Worth, Texas, ticking off two important milestones for the F-35 program simultaneously, Fredrick said.
The rest of the planes in Luke’s first 24-plane squadron are expected to be delivered in groups of one to four throughout 2014, said Lockheed Martin spokesman Michael Rein. Each plane takes about two years to assemble and costs $65 million, he said.
The high-dollar construction program associated with the jets at Luke will boost the entire Valley’s economy, said Glendale Mayor Jerry Weiers.
“It’s certainly a benefit. I do believe it’s the whole region. I think it’s going to be literally across the Valley. There will be people out there working and supplies bought from all over,” he said.
Construction crews already are bustling to transition the base for the newest generation of fighter planes.
Luke has 137 F-16s. The first two squadrons of F-16s are scheduled to relocate to Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo, N.M., in 2014 and 2015.
However, F-35 instructors, trainees and crews cannot simply move into existing facilities as the F-16s and their personnel move out, Fredrick said.
The F-35s feature more advanced technology and different equipment than the F-16s, which requires support facilities tailored specifically to accommodate them.
Some buildings and infrastructure systems are being retrofitted for the F-35s, but most of the work involves new construction. Overall, plans call for new buildings associated with each of the six squadrons, plus several smaller projects, such as improvements to hangars and warehouses.
The construction work is being directed by the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees military construction and major civil-works projects worldwide.
The first phase features three major buildings — a classroom building called the Academic Training Center, a squadron headquarters called the Squadron Operations building and a workshop building called the Aircraft Maintenance Unit.
Work is under way on all three buildings.
The classroom building eventually will be used by all six squadrons of pilots-in-training, but each of the six squadrons will get their own operations and maintenance buildings.
The Academic Training Center alone is budgeted for $54 million. The L-shaped building will house classrooms, an auditorium, administrative offices and perhaps most importantly, a dozen F-35 cockpit simulators.
The structure is scheduled to open with two simulators in August 2014; the remaining simulators will be added as additional squadrons arrive later, Fredrick said.
The simulators essentially are life-size, three-dimensional video games that allow student pilots to get time behind the controls of an F-35 without leaving the ground.
The simulators are especially valuable for teaching beginning skills, such as how to start the aircraft and how to handle preflight communications with ground crews and tower personnel without burning through hours and hours worth of jet fuel, Fredrick said.
In addition, instructors can prepare trainees for a variety of flight situations by programming an array of weather conditions, in-flight mechanical malfunctions and attacks by enemy combatants, all without the risk of losing lives or property.
“That’s exactly where you want young pilots to make their mistakes,” Fredrick said.
The $10 million Squadron Operations building will be the primary place where pilots prepare for flights. The building will feature a theater-style briefing room and space for pilots to program their planes’ computer systems before takeoff.
“You put 30 guys in the room who are going to fly at 10 o’clock today and you tell them what the weather is, what the restrictions are, and out they go,” Fredrick said.
The most sensitive equipment in the operations building will be housed in “the vault,” a densely constructed high-security section that’s designed to keep inquiring minds inquiring indefinitely, he said.
The $6 million Aircraft Maintenance Unit involves a renovation and addition to an existing building. When complete, it will accommodate ground crew members, who will use it to store tools, parts and electronic records.
“Those are the maintainers that actually check out a toolbox, walk out to the aircraft and get it ready to fly,” said Senior Master Sgt. Don Stroud, who serves as the maintenance group leader for the F-35 program.
The majority of work on the F-35s will be handled on the flight deck, under metal shade structures that originally were built to shade F-16s.
Record-keeping is critical, he said. Ground crews will generate 30 to 40 pages worth of detailed documents every day for every jet. That work will be handled at banks of computers in the structure.
The operations and maintenance buildings are positioned side by side to facilitate greater communication and camaraderie among the pilots and the ground crew members, Fredrick said.
Starting with the second squadron, the operations and maintenance facilities will be combined in new $18 million, two-story buildings. Those will come on line as the subsequent squadrons arrive.
“It’s going to be a hard-hat area out here for many years,” Fredrick said.
Foreign military pilots also will train at Luke. The first F-35 squadron will be comprised of U.S. and Australian pilots. Italian, Turkish and Norwegian pilots are scheduled to join the mix in 2015.