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EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, FLA. — New Air Force pilots might not have to fly F-16 jets before transitioning from T-38 trainers to the F-35 joint strike fighter.

While plans have not been finalized, officials are hoping pilots will be able to transition from two-seat T-38 Talon trainers directly into the single-seat F-35 thanks to more advanced simulators.

"We hope not," Lt. Col. Eric Smith, 33rd Fighter Wing operational support squadron commander, said in a meeting with reporters when asked if new F-35 pilot would need to fly two-seat F-16s, much like they do before they fly single-seat F-22s.

"Right now, the full mission simulator has the capability to train a guy on air refueling, which is one of the reasons that they did that in the F-22," he said.

The Air Force has in the past made new pilots fly F-16s for a number of check flights before transitioning to the single-seat F-22 Raptor. This is because the Raptor is a much more high performance fighter than the T-38 Talon jet trainer.

All new Air Force F-35 pilots have previous experience flying F-15 Eagles, F-16s or A-10 Warthogs. A new pilot without previous fighter experience probably will not go through F-35 training until 2017 or 2018.

The Air Force is in the early phases of laying out a plan to replace the 1960s-era T-38. The aircraft, dubbed T-X, will have more advanced capabilities allowing Air Force pilots to more easily transition to single-seat fifth-generation F-22s and F-35s.

Air Force leaders have made the T-X one of the service's top acquisition priorities.

Hagel visits F-35 training wing

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday visited Elgin, where he toured the 33rd Fighter Wing, home to F-35 schoolhouse for U.S. and foreign pilots and maintainers.

During the visit, Hagel met with F-35 pilots and maintainers and sat in the cockpit of one of the 49 aircraft stationed at the base on the Florida panhandle. The wing is home to the Air Force's 58th Fighter Squadron, which has 26 F-35A jets.

The secretary said those he met with expressed their confidence in the programs, despite experiencing setbacks, most recently from an June 23 engine fire on an Air Force jet during takeoff. The entire F-35 fleet has been grounded since then.

Since the grounding, pilots at Eglin have been using simulators and discussing new ways to tactically employ the aircraft, Smith said.

"I wouldn't exactly call it down time," Smith said.

Hagel said the airmen, Marines and Navy aviators stationed at the base have "tremendous confidence" in the F-35.

"Some of the pilots told me it's the best aircraft that they had ever flown and some said it was the easiest," Hagel said during a speech in front of an F-35 bearing his name on the front landing gear door.

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