The first F-35C Lightning II pilots have graduated from the Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor course ― best known as TOPGUN ― and are back in the fleet training others, according to the Navy.
Marine Corps Maj. Derek Heinz, assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 125, the “Rough Raiders,” and Navy Lt. William Goodwin III, assigned to the VFA-147 “Argonauts,” graduated in May from TOPGUN at the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada.
The Navy said that all F-35C tactics instructors have undergone the 13-week TOPGUN course ― but Heinz and Goodwin are the first who were already flying the F-35 to graduate, using a syllabus tailored for F-35C integrated operations.
“Our focus on the students that go through TOPGUN is not limited to teaching them the tactics, techniques and procedures that are required for them to successfully employ their aircraft, integrated into a larger force,” said Cmdr. Timothy Myers, head of the TOPGUN Department at the warfighting center, in a Navy news release. “We are also in the business of teaching our graduates how to instruct other students, so that when they go back to the Fleet, they are able to instruct at a very high level.”
And that’s exactly what Heinz and Goodwin are doing.
With TOPGUN under their belt, both have returned to the fleet and are both at Naval Air Station Lemoore, instructing aviators with VFA-147 in the latest tactics as they prepare for an upcoming deployment with Carrier Air Wing 2, according to the commander of the Joint Strike Fighter Wing, Capt. Adan Covarrubias.
“Our focus is on assisting the SFTIs at the operational Fleet squadron pushing the big picture tactics and ensuring that everything is ready to go for the first and subsequent F-35C carrier deployments,” Goodwin said in the release. “The idea is that VFA-147 SFTIs can use the standards of tactical execution we provide to train their own people and take that knowledge with them through deployment. We are here to ensure that they are set up for success.”
Heinz said that completing TOPGUN has altered his approach to teaching.
“While my role as an F-35C instructor is still primarily focused on the students at the [fleet replacement squadron], my perspective on what I teach and how I teach it most certainly has grown since completing TOPGUN” he said in the release.
VFA-125, the fleet replacement squadron for the F-35C, is responsible for instructing Navy and Marine Corps carrier-based Lightning II pilots. It was reactivated in 2017.
“I’m still training students to fly the aircraft, it’s just now I have the additional responsibility as an SFTI to bring that advanced training to the Fleet, while helping maintain the TOPGUN training syllabus and ensuring standardization of training for all instructors,” Heinz said. “We are always working to maintain the highest standards of training.”
TOPGUN and the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center spent several years crafting the syllabus and curriculum Heinz and Goodwin used, which was developed by progressively inserting F-35 tactics into previous curricula to produce “graduate-level” training and “a cadre of highly trained instructors.”
As with other TOPGUN courses, the training includes classroom lectures and labs, along with simulated and live-fly events targeting novel advanced tactical recommendations.
“Graduating Strike Fighter Tactics Instructors allows us to accelerate learning by feeding TOPGUN training back to the Fleet, elevating the lethality and survivability of both the individual aircraft as well as the Carrier Strike Group,” Myers said in the release. “The Lightning II proved its value to the Navy during every phase of the TOPGUN course, and its integration with the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, E/A-18G Growler and E-2C/D Hawkeye demonstrated that the powerful combination of 4th and 5th generation fighters, with advanced electronic attack, and command and control, is a force-multiplier against advanced threats.”
The Navy’s Joint Strike Fighter Wing was launched in August 2018 out of Naval Air Station Lemoore and the Navy announced in February 2019 that the F-35C had met Initial Operating Capability.
While simultaneously engaging in shore and sea detachments, the Navy said both VFA-147 and VFA-125 have kept reaching program requirements, passing inspections and receiving certifications.