EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --
Student pilots assigned to the 58th Fighter Squadron complete required mission sets toward their initial qualification training on the F-35A Lightning II between Aug. 6-20, 2021 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.
These student pilots are part of the second-ever IQT course under the 33rd Fighter Wing. Meet five pilots soon to join the operational Air Force.
Capt. John Toner
F-35A student pilot assigned to the 58th Fighter Squadron. His parents were in the Army, so he has lived in many areas but claims Kansas as home. He started AFROTC in 2010 and commissioned in 2015.
“Flying the F-35 is the greatest feeling in the world,” said Toner. “Every takeoff, I still get excited as the engine revs up and blasts.”
Toner went to the University of Kansas and majored in aerospace engineering.
"Overall the Air Force has been great, definitely challenging in pilot training and now the formal F-35 training here,” said Toner. “Flying amazing planes around the country and with awesome people has been the ultimate highlight so far.”
His family and fellow pilots keep him inspired to continue striving to be the best wingmen he can be.
In his free time, Toner enjoys hunting, fishing and relaxing whenever he can.
1st Lt. Ian Woodward
F-35A student pilot assigned to the 58th Fighter Squadron. He is originally from Cass City, Michigan and joined the Air Force in May 2018.
“I didn’t want to work behind a desk my whole life,” said Woodward. “The Air Force has great opportunities to see things that I may never have if I didn’t join.”
Woodward graduated from Eastern Michigan University with a Bachelors of Science in Marketing.
“I love flying the F-35,” said Woodward. “I like being a part of something that’s constantly evolving both in the physical airframe and how it’s employed tactically.”
During his training here, Woodward has learned basic fighter maneuvers, air combat maneuvers, suppression of enemy air defense, defensive counter air and various other mission sets.
"Flight training has been challenging and is particularly humbling when you screw up,” said Woodward. “Everyone has made mistakes, but it's what you learn from them that's important.”
In his free time, Woodward enjoys playing video games, watching TV, reading and exercising.
1st Lt. Kirsten Eissman
F-35A student pilot assigned to the 58th Fighter Squadron. She is originally from Palatine, Illinois and joined the Air Force in 2018.
“I’ve had an interest in planes since I was little,” said Eissman. “I thought they were cool for the longest time. In 8th grade, our English teacher had us write letters to our graduating high school senior self; predicting what career path we might follow and where we would go to school. In mine I had written ‘maybe you will be a pilot for the USAF.’ In the midst of a time of big decision making, this reminder helped me choose to try and pursue my dream through ROTC.”
Eissman went to Miami University in Ohio and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in sociology.
"It is a long journey from the start of pilot training to the end of B-course,” said Eissman. “Staying focused and committed to studying can be hard, but it isn’t something you can do without putting the work in. There is a lot of responsibility that comes with flying these jets, and when it’s time to go you need to make the most of your time airborne. The work starts on the ground. By the time you’re in the air it’s time to perform.”
Throughout her training, Eissman has been challenged, but remembers the history that she follows as a female fighter pilot. Of the 10,964 pilots in the U.S. Air Force today, only 6.5 percent are women. The majority fly mobility aircraft and fewer than 3 percent fly fighters.
"I’m inspired by those who have come before me, specifically other women fighter pilots,” said Eissman. “It is becoming more common to see women in these jets, but it wasn’t always that way. I want to make the most out of the path the Air Force has paved for me.”
In her free time, Eissman enjoys running and plans to attempt her first half marathon this fall.
1st Lt. Benjamin Hawkins
F-35A student pilot assigned to the 58th Fighter Squadron. He is originally from Argyle, Texas and joined the Air Force in 2014.
“My older cousin, Maj “Fist” Watts, blazed the trail in our family as an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot, and I always looked up to him and his wife, Maj. Jessica Watts, as superstar Air Force officers throughout my youth,” said Hawkins. “Additionally, I craved the “best of both worlds” college experience that the U.S. Air Force Academy provides by combining the opportunity to serve my country with the chance to play collegiate baseball.”
Hawkins went to the U.S. Air Force Academy and graduated in 2018 with a Bachelor’s in Economics. During Thanksgiving break his freshman year, Hawkins had the opportunity to fly in the backseat of an F-16, which inspired him to pursue a career as a pilot.
"I will always credit the 457th Fighter Squadron at Naval Air Station, Fort Worth, and the experience of flying in the backseat of an F-16 as the single driving factor towards my desire to attend pilot training and attempt to be a pilot in the U.S. Air Force,” said Hawkins.
“I couldn’t recommend the Air Force experience more,” said Hawkins. “The level of professionalism and passion that every airman, teammate, instructor, and wingman I’ve come in contact with is unmatched. My favorite moments are often the most challenging. Graduating from undergraduate pilot training and introduction to fighter fundamentals as well as progressing through the F-35 Formal Training Unit with the 58th FS here at @Eglin AFB all have their own uniquely challenging and immensely rewarding moments.”
Hawkins' greatest inspiration is his wife, 1st Lt. Alisha Martin, 23rd Flying Training Squadron helicopter pilot.
“My wife defines resilience and drive,” said Hawkins. “She’s the foundation of my daily inspiration, a bonafide rockstar. She’s overcome incredible obstacles to captain teams, earn a Master’s degree, and somehow find the time to fly helicopters.”
Although his wife is his greatest inspiration, he often reflects on the lessons his dad taught him as a kid.
“As my dad used to tell me, ‘Perfect Practice Makes Permanent,’” said Hawkins. “Following a recent debrief for a missionized syllabus flight, I was reminded of the ideology in a training environment of always striving for perfection, but never letting mistakes stunt progress. Relentless study and building of good, repeatable habits in practice is paramount. When the time comes that we are needed in the Combat Air Forces, it’s vitally important we as F-35 wingmen have permanent habits through perfect practice.”
In his free time, Hawkins enjoys snowboarding, golfing and discovering new music.
1st Lt. Amanda Cannon
F-35A student pilot assigned to the 58th Fighter Squadron. She is originally from Palm City, Florida and joined the Air Force in 2014.
“I wanted to be a pilot because to me, there’s no better job in the world,” said Cannon.
Cannon majored in political science with a foreign language minor in Chinese while attending the U.S. Air Force Academy and commissioned as a second lieutenant in 2018.
"I love getting to go through all this training with new and old friends,” said Cannon. “Every base gives new opportunities to make relationships that continue to grow and move with me.”
Within the Air Force, the pilot community is quite small and fighter pilots make up an even smaller percentage of that. Cannon commissioned from the Academy with 1st Lt. Benjamin Hawkins, completed undergraduate pilot training with 1st Lt Ian Woodward and endured water survival with 1st Lt Kirsten Eissman, all of whom are fellow F-35A Lighting II student pilots at the 33rd.
"It’s been constant learning since I joined the Air Force, so every day is challenging and rewarding,” said Cannon. “Getting to apply what I learn in books to my flying in the air is exciting to see."
In her free time, Cannon enjoys spending time with her dog, doing anything at the beach or water, and visiting with friends and family.
Each of these student pilots are scheduled to graduate Sept. 2021 before moving to Hill AFB, Utah to be operational F-35A pilots.