The Avalon International Airshow 2017 was a milestone for the RAAF because it was able to bring to the event it’s first two F-35 Lightning IIs – A35-001 and A35-002. These aircraft had only a few days before flown directly from the USA to Australia. The F-35s appeared over Avalon Airport on the morning of Friday 4 March 2017 in loose formation, conducted a flyby and then landed.
On the ground the RAAF had various members of the F-35 Program Office answering questions and explaining to the public some details of the new aircraft. While seeking out aviation news, Down Under Aviation News (DUAN) was lucky to be able to meet one of the RAAF F-35 pilots who is flying the F-35 over in the USA and another pilot who is shortly to begin their training in the USA.
DUAN is privileged to have been able to be granted an interview with an RAAF pilot who is now undergoing the process of training in the USA on the new Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II – RAAF member Wing Commander Darren Clare. Darren has kindly offered to elaborate on his background in the RAAF such as aircraft training, flight operations and preparations he has undertaken during the lead up to being posted to the USA to conduct the F-35 training. When he completes his training Darren will be reposted back to Australia and become the new 3 SQN Commanding Officer as the F-35 is introduced into full RAAF service.
Can you explain/elaborate on your RAAF background and operational skill sets before you entered the F-35 training program – years of service, rank, squadrons assigned to and aircraft types flown, etc.
I am a wing commander with just over 23 years of service. I joined the Air Force through the Australian Defence Force Academy prior to completing Pilots Course. Upon graduation I was selected for fast jet training, flying the Macchi MB-326H and then on to the F/A-18 Hornet in 2000.
After an initial posting to 77 Squadron, I was posted to 75 Squadron and deployed with them to Operation Falconer in 2003.
After returning from the Middle East, I was selected for instructor training (and have since spent the majority of my career in an instructional role), and had instructional tours at No 2 Flying Training School (PC-9A), 79 Squadron and 76 Squadron (Hawk 127), and No 2 Operational Conversion Unit (F/A-18A/B). I then took up a position as a Flight Commander at 77 Squadron as a Squadron Leader, before going to Canberra as the Operational Requirements Desk Officer in the New Air Combat Capability (F-35A) Integrated Project Team.
As the Operational Requirements Officer in the New Air Combat Capability Integrated Project Team, I was responsible for ensuring the Joint Program Office in the USA was aware of RAAF’s requirements and that they were given appropriate priority to meet Australia’s needs. This involved having a thorough understanding of what Australia expected to get from the F-35A program as well as determining what changes were required in Australia to transition to a fifth-generation aircraft. Whilst in this job, I deployed to Afghanistan as the Executive Officer of the Heron detachment.
On return to Australia, I was posted to 6 Squadron as the Executive Officer (Chief Flying Instructor) on the Super Hornet and on promotion to Wing Commander was selected as Executive Officer of 82 Wing. I was then fortunate to be selected for Advanced Command and Staff Course at Shrivenham in the United Kingdom, and whilst there was selected to be the first Commanding Officer of an F-35A squadron, 3 Squadron.
Just four weeks after arriving home from the United Kingdom, having completed the staff course, I deployed for the third time to the Middle East as the Australian Target Engagement Authority (Red Card Holder) and Commanding Officer of the RAAF personnel at the Combined Air Operations Centre in Qatar.
After returning back to Australia a couple of months ago, I am now preparing to move to Phoenix, Arizona to begin F-35A conversion and begin to stand up 3 Squadron as an F-35A squadron.
Do you have any memorable flying experiences that you would like to share?
Most operational flying is memorable, but certainly having flown all over Australia, South East Asia, across the Indian Ocean to the Middle East and across the Pacific to the US, it is always a joy to get airborne in great fighter aircraft. Seeing trainees graduate from their training courses is also a thrill as they represent the next generation of fighter aircrew.
How were you selected as part of the initial F-35 aircrew – was it a specialised requirement to be chosen or what was the selection process?
Air Force conducts command selection boards every year to select people for upcoming leadership positions. I was fortunate enough that I had the right background at the right time, and Chief of Air Force, Deputy Chief of Air Force and Air Commander Australia, considered me suitable for the appointment [Commanding Officer 3 Squadron].
I think my instructional experience, operational experience and time in the F-35 project made me competitive at the board. I have instructed throughout the entire fast jet training continuum including PC-9/A, Hawk127, Classic and Super Hornet, and soon to be F-35A.
What preparations are you carrying out prior to your initial F-35 training – will it focus on using desktop computers, reading manuals and flight simulator training?
My current preparation is not particularly relevant to flying the aircraft yet. My course starts on 25 May 2017, this will involve a lot of computer-aided training, briefings, reading and simulator training before we get anywhere near the aircraft.
My main focus at present is engaging with the many support/partner organisations across Air Force and in other Defence groups that will be enabling F-35A operations on Australian soil when we bring the aircraft back in December 2018.
From feedback from other pilots like SQN LDR David Bell, who is already flying the F-35, will your training/conversion path be any easier?
I imagine I will be getting as much information as I can from them (and they will, in fact, be my instructors over there until I get qualified), but each conversion or transition to a new aircraft brings different challenges.
That said, I will be leaning on their experience as much as I can when I am there as a student myself!. Shown below is fellow RAAF F-35 pilot SQN LDR David Bell who Darren will work alongside in the USA. You will note some of the USAF patches David wears while in the F-35 training squadron in the USA.
What challenges may you face in F-35 training and conversion to flying?
The main challenge for me will be letting go of some of the legacy thinking in the way we train and fight. I will need to be ready to bring on new ideas and techniques in operating the aircraft in a manner that is very different to the way I learnt fighter tactics back in the early 2000s.
What capabilities do you see the F-35 bringing to the RAAF in the future?
There are numerous capability enhancements that the F-35A will bring to the Air Force, however, leveraging them will require the entire Air Force to move into a new way of operating to achieve it. That is where Plan Jericho will transform Air Force into the world’s first fifth-generation Air Force.
Almost all of Air Force’s new capability acquisitions provide an ability to collect and share information, and it will be our ability as a fighting force to capitalise on those advances that will really give the Air Force the edge in situational awareness.
What is less advertised, but just as significant, will be the changes in the way that maintenance and logistics functions are conducted to keep these aircraft flying. Bringing all of the support agencies on that journey as we determine the best way to sustain F-35A operations and provide the best capability we can. This will be an important part of my role in introducing the aircraft into service.
What will your role/s be once the F-35 is formally introduced into RAAF service in Australia from 2018 onwards?
I will be the Commanding Officer of 3 Squadron at RAAF Base Williamtown. We will be conducting initial suitability and operational testing of the aircraft in the Australian environment in which we will be operating to ensure all the systems, procedures and support networks operate as expected.
This should culminate for me with a declaration of Initial Operating Capability in late 2020, meaning the squadron is ready to deploy on operations if requested by the Australian Government.
Is there anything else that you would be willing to add about your RAAF background, past flying or the F-35 training and operational flying?
I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have been given this opportunity. I think it is every fighter pilot’s dream (and it has certainly been a dream of mine for a long time!) to fly ‘the next aircraft’, and to be selected to lead the first squadron in that endeavour is truly humbling.
DUAN kindly thanks WGCDR Darren Clare for taking the time to answer these questions and share his insights. We also appreciate the Defence Media and the RAAF Public Affairs teams assistance in making this article possible. We look forward to seeing 3 SQN convert to the F-35 over the next few years.