Wednesday, November 11, 2009

188th Major Flying High In Fighter

Arkansas Air National Guard Maj. Jay Spohn pauses before boarding an A-10 Warthog in Fort Smith on Tuesday. Spohn has been chosen to join a select group of pilots training to operate the new F-35 fighter aircraft. (Photo by Rusty Garret / Southwest Times Record)

By Rusty Garrett
Southwest Times Record
Wednesday, November 11, 2009 8:53 AM CST

First he trained members of the 188th Fighter Wing to fly Warthogs; then he trained them for deployment to Afghanistan. Now Maj. Jay Spohn is looking at some training for himself as the lone Air National Guardsman among a dozen elite pilots training on a brand new fighter plane.

As eager as he is to see his unit accomplish its overseas mission, Spohn is equally eager to take on the new one facing him. He will join the initial cadre of aviators in the F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter program. The F-35 took to the air last year and so far has been flown primarily by test pilots.

Spohn and the other pilots — from the Air Force Reserves and active duty Air Force — will be the first to learn and use the military applications of the new multi-purpose aircraft.

Spohn joined the 188th in March 2007 to help the unit move from flying F-16 Fighting Falcons to A-10 Thunderbolt II "Warthogs." Recently, as the unit's chief of weapons and tactics, he has been preparing Guardsmen for their mission in Afghanistan, scheduled for early next year.

Spohn has flown A-10s throughout his Guard career. And though he is comfortable with the Warthog, he said Tuesday that it has become evident the versatile F-35 will replace both the A-10s and F-16s as the predominant aircraft in the type of combat challenging the U.S. He said the F-35 is "a step above anything in a fighter," with equal air-to-ground and air-to-air combat capability.

"I thought it would be beneficial if someone ended up in the cadre with some A-10 experience," Spohn said. "As I thought about it more, I thought, 'Why not me?'"

Spohn said A-10 pilots are trained to a "close air support" mentality, focusing on the mission of ground troops.

Understandably, Spohn has little personal knowledge of the F-35.

He has experienced a model of the aircraft's cockpit and its state-of-the-art flight helmet, which provides aviators with day-night, all-weather vision and the capability of a 360-degree view of their surroundings.

He said a pilot looking down will not see his legs, but a view of the ground directly below his aircraft.

Spohn is scheduled to report to Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida for the first phase of his training Dec. 11.

He said it will take the Air Force several months to secure and outfit the F-35 aircraft for the team.

In the meantime, he will train in F-15C aircraft, a fighter he says will help him gain additional experience in air-to-air combat.

In August Spohn and the other pilots will transfer to nearby Eglin Air Force Base for 12 to 14 months of training on the F-35.

Spohn, 34, is a New Jersey native.

He was commissioned through the Academy of Military Science in October 1999, and attended U.S. Air Force Weapons Officer Training at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

Soon after graduation from weapons school, Spohn joined the 188th.

The 10-year Guard veteran said he has enjoyed his time in Arkansas and will miss his association with the 188th.

Upon completion of his training, he expects to be "semi-permanently or permanently" assigned to the Florida National Guard.

Col. Tom Anderson, 188th Fighter Wing Commander, called Spohn's selection "a bittersweet pill" of pride over his selection and the loss of his talent as a leader.

He said Spohn has been both a skilled pilot and an able instructor during his tenure with the 188th, and he will be missed.


Related info:
From Thunderbolt to Lightning: 188th Fighter Wing's Spohn only Air National Guard pilot selected to first F-35 cadre (188th Fighter Wing Public Affairs)

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