New F-35 pilots graduate

Exercise High Sierra is back gracing Townsville airspace once again, following a two-year hiatus, to graduate the latest cadre of F-35A Lightning II pilots.

CAPTION: An Air Force Hawk 127 and F-35A Lightning II prepare to take off during Exercise High Sierra at RAAF Base Townsville in Queensland. Story by Flying Officer Sharon Sebastian. All photos by Leading Aircraftman Ryan Howell.

Exercise High Sierra is a 2 Operational Conversion Unit (2OCU) training exercise, and is the final component of the F-35A Lightning II Operational Conversion Course.

Commanding Officer of 2OCU, Wing Commander Philip Eldridge, said this was the first time 2OCU has held the exercise at RAAF Base Townsville using the F-35A Lightning II.

Previous iterations of Exercise High Sierra, which were a fixture in Townsville for almost 35 years, trained pilots on the now retired F/A-18A/B Classic Hornet.

CAPTION: An Air Force F-35A Lightning II taxis to the runway at RAAF Base Townsville.

“It’s with immense pride and joy that we graduate students off course. They become part of the 2OCU team,” Wing Commander Eldridge said.

“This exercise has graduated fast-jet pilots capable of executing air combat operations from a forward operating base.

“It also exposes the squadron to large-force employment scenarios and hones the preparation and delivery of high explosive ordnance into the training range.”

According to Wing Commander Eldridge, who was a regular to Townsville when he flew the F/A-18A/B Classic Hornets, the environment for flying in the region is unique.

Away from their home base, Williamtown, students are faced with flying around difficult terrain, and using different airfield procedures, he said.

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CAPTION: Flight Lieutenant Luke during Exercise High Sierra 23 at RAAF Base Townsville.

With more than 160 aviators and 19 aircraft deployed to RAAF Base Townsville for the exercise from June 19 to July 6, it definitely takes a village to train a pilot.

“The aviators we have deployed here to support the exercise are all focused on graduating our students with as realistic missions as we can provide in the aircraft,” Wing Commander Eldridge said.

Exercise High Sierra presented an opportunity for the F-35A Lightning II aircraft to integrate with other Air Force capabilities to practise interoperability tactics, techniques and procedures.

Integrating with the F-35A pilots during High Sierra were aviators from 2 Squadron on the E-7A Wedgetail, 76 Squadron Hawk 127 Lead-In Fighter aircraft playing the adversary, 33 Squadron operating the KC-30A air-to-air refuelling aircraft and 27 Squadron providing ground refuelling support.

“High Sierra is only possible with the support of a whole range of other assets,” Wing Commander Eldridge said.

The skills pilots developed on this exercise, further enable the delivery of integrated air and space power effects, as part of the joint force.


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