Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus, 56th Fighter Wing commander, puts on hus helmet during his first F-35 sortie flight at Luke Air Force Base on March 18, 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Devante Williams)
Meet the general as Luke AFB turns 75
Brig. Gen. Scott L. Pleus looks like he could win a marathon or a UFC championship on a whim and on the same day.
“There’s a reason fighter pilots all look the same,” Pleus says. “We are all about the same height. We are all about the same size. It’s because each of us are hand-picked to do what we do and what we do takes a level of fitness and physicality that produces the best fighter pilots.”
Pleus commands the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base, which is celebrating its 75th year of training the world’s most elite fighter pilots. Pleus is leading Luke as it transitions to become the sole pilot training center for the F-35, the Air Force’s newest multi-role aircraft.
Pleus, who took over as commander at Luke AFB in June 2014, sat down with Az Business to talk about what it’s like to fly a $110 million F-35 and how he views Luke AFB’s impact on Arizona.
Az Business: Luke will be celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. What is Luke’s greatest impact?
Brig. Gen. Scott L. Pleus: You have to start at the beginning. Luke Field started in 1941 and we’ve produced 58,000-plus fighter pilots for the United States Air Force since we started. When we started, there wasn’t much to the West Valley. There was just a little field out here with some airplanes flying around. Over the years, as the base has grown, the region has grown with it.
AB: What separates Luke from other Air Force bases?
SP: The interesting thing about Luke Air Force Base is the community support we have. It’s really second to none. I’ve been to a lot of Air Force bases in my career — 26 years and 15 different bases — and our community here really takes care of the airmen in a way I haven’t seen other bases do. I think it has to do with the fact that we are such a big Air Force base and so many of our airmen live in the surrounding West Valley communities. I think that’s why the relationship has grown over the years.
As far as Luke’s impact on the Air Force, since the 1990s, Luke Air Force Base has produced 95 percent of the F-16 fighter pilots for the entire United States Air Force. Now, we are about to start producing 100 percent of the F-35 pilots for the United States Air Force.
AB: How does that community support impact you?
SP: It makes my job super easy because when people come here, they know this Air Force base is supported by the community. When spouses and children are coming, they know the schools are great. The support networks are great. The housing is wonderful. The weather is the best on the planet. So it takes away all those additional stress factors when someone is moving into a new location. The reputation of Luke Air Force Base as being family friendly is well known throughout the Air Force.
A Timeline on the history of Luke Air Force Base
AB: Why has Arizona been such an effective location for Luke Air Force Base?
SP: When they first thought of the idea of putting an Air Force base in Arizona, they looked at the weather patterns and got that right. The other thing we have that other places in the country don’t have is the unbelievable air space. We have the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, which is located south of the base about 80 miles away on the United States-Mexican border. It is roughly the size of New Jersey. It’s a national treasure to have that big of a piece of air space to train in. We also have three additional air space or military operating areas that we use on a day-to-day basis that allows us to be as big of a base as we are without impacting any of the civilian flying that happens in the fifth-largest metropolitan area in the United States.
AB: How has Luke had to grow and evolve over the last few years to provide training for F-35 pilots and maintainers?
SP: From an infrastructure standpoint, we had to make some modifications, but very few. The runway complex was already suited for F-35 operations. All of our ramp space where we park the airplanes was already fit for F-35s. The main things we’ve had to do were upgrades to our communications infrastructure to make sure we have the right kind of Internet connectivity so the airplane can talk with the computers because it is an electronic airplane. The other thing we’ve done is build a couple new facilities, mostly for the training aspect. We have a new academic training center we finished in 2015 and that houses 12 new F-35 simulators and all the academic rooms required. That’s probably the biggest change we’ve had to do to the base.
AB: You flew the base’s first F-35 student flight about a year ago. How have you been able to get F-35 training up to speed so rapidly?
SP: It really started a few years ago with a couple Wing commanders before me. They put the dominoes in place to make sure we were going to be ready for our first student training sortie. It goes back to making sure we had the simulators ready to go, the new academic training center ready to go, the right pilots with the right skill set and our jets arriving on time. It was just a natural maturation process at that point. The airmen that are the engine behind making sure the mission gets done have worked extremely hard to make sure that all those key pieces fell into place so we were ready to do that very first training sortie. We hit the ground running and have continued to build on that as we get closer to our max capacity when we will have 144 F-35s here.
AB: How big a win was it for Luke to land F-35 training?
SP: Bringing the F-35 here became a natural choice. When you combine the weather, the air space, the little need for infrastructure changes, it became a very obvious choice. For 25 years, Luke Air Force Base was training just F-16 pilots. As we transition from F-16s to F-35s, it’s a natural progression to make Luke the premiere F-35 training base for the entire United States Air Force.
AB: How have you been able to so effectively balance F-35 training and F-16 training?
SP: We have two squadrons of F-16 trainers that are located at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico that still work for me at Luke Air Force Base. We have two more squadrons here at Luke that continue to do F-16 training. From that standpoint, nothing really changed except we moved some airplanes to another location. The way we do training has been tried and true and we’ve been doing it for a long time, so changing a location didn’t really make a difference to us as to how we continued to funnel pilots through, get them trained and get them ready for combat.
AB: What’s the biggest difference between flying an F-16 and an F-35?
SP: The easiest way to explain it is they are both fighter aircraft. They are both high performance. The difference is in whether you can see them on the radar. An F-16 can be seen by enemy radar very easily. Even though they look about the same size, the radar is not going to see the F-35. Nobody knows it’s there. That’s the low observable, stealth capabilities of the F-35. The second difference is in the F-16, I had a lot of different sensors onboard the aircraft, a targeting pod, a radar. All of those things are presented to me as a pilot as separate displays. All of these things had to be brought together in my own mind to create a three-dimensional picture of what the world was. In the F-35, everything is presented to you in one screen. When you combine that with the avionics of the helmet, you have a 360-degree view of the world all the time. It provides information to you as the pilot that allows you can make simple decisions as to whether or not that is a target you want to engage or not. That is the true definition between fourth-generation legacy fighters — F-16s, F-15s, A-10s, F-18s — and a fifth-generation fighter — the F-35.
AB: Luke is becoming the world’s premier F-35 training base. How do you balance and manage training pilots from all over the world?
SP: We’ve been training people from all over the world at Luke Air Force Base almost since we started in 1941. We’ve trained all nationalities of fighter pilots through the years. It’s really not a big deal for us to continue that tradition. The community support has always been here for our international partners as well. When I talk about about relieving stressors for people who are moving to Phoenix that are from the United States, imagine if you’re coming in from another country. The reputation of Luke Air Force Base is well known throughout the entire fighter community. International pilots are treated just like our American counterparts.
AB: Luke’s training program is expected to grow rapidly through 2024. In what areas do you expect to see that rapid growth?
SP: What we have done up until this point is focus primarily on training instructors that will stay at Luke Air Force Base. We have been accepting American pilots and international pilots in lots of different types of fighter airplanes, so their previous background was A-10, F-16, F-15, F-15E, F-18 and so there was a lot of varied background and they’re all coming here. Up until (this month), they have been staying here. We haven’t really been producing pilots for the Air Force operational units. Starting this month, we will start producing pilots for Hill Air Force Base. It’s a transition from a more transient student population. They’re going to come here, move here, live for for three or four years and then stay as instructor pilots. That’s the biggest change I see.
AB: How has Luke’s growth and evolution impacted the growth and prosperity of the surrounding communities?
SP: As the base has continued to grow, so has the West Valley. As Luke expanded its mission, you also started to see more jobs and housing move into the West Valley. The City of Phoenix found that Luke Air Force Base has a $2.2 billion annual economic impact, so you cannot argue with the fact that we are a huge part of the economy.
AB: What do you see as Luke’s strengths?
SP: Families like to come here. I think the weather plays a big role in that. From a mission standpoint, access to the amazing air space we have makes Luke an absolute jewel. From the bigger perspective, Luke has always been on the cutting edge of training the latest and greatest fighter pilots. Bringing the F-35s here gives the base that much more ability to prove itself as always being forward thinking and always training the best and the brightest.
AB: What aspect of leading Luke gives you the most pride?
SP: My youngest son was born while I was a young lieutenant at Luke Air Force Base early in my career. To come back as the commander is a dream come true. That is the easiest way to describe it. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would have the opportunity to be a commander and come back to Phoenix. But the thing that gives me the most pride is the 5,500 people that come to work each and every day to produce the sound of freedom. Every single person at this base understands how important their individual contribution is to producing F-35 and F-16 sorties so we can train those fighter pilots. The pride and professionalism that each and every one of them displays is truly inspiring to watch.