A U.S. Air Force pilot has reached 1,000 flight hours in the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter stealth jet.

The service recently announced that Lt. Col. Jared “Vic” Santos of the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, became the first pilot to achieve the milestone in the F-35A variant.

A Marine became the first military pilot to reach it in January, flying the F-35B model. And a Lockheed test pilot reached the milestone in 2017.

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Before transitioning to the F-35A, Santos flew the F-15C Eagle, as well as the F/A-18 Hornet during a Marine Corps exchange program, accruing 2,000 combined hours between the fourth-generation jets, according to a service release.

“This is an accomplishment for Vic, for us as a wing, and for the Air Force,” Col. Steven Behmer, 388th Fighter Wing commander, said in the release.

“A relatively short time ago, the Air Force was standing this program up. Now, we’ve got our first 1,000-hour-pilot,” Behmer said. “Pilots like Vic are able to pass that experience on to younger pilots in the F-35 community. They are really going to get the best out of this jet, which is already very capable, and continuing to improve.”

Santos hit the 1,000-hour mark during a training exercise imitating a fighter intercept over the Utah Test and Training Range, the release states.

Currently the wing’s special projects manager overseeing COVID-19 response and planning, Santos first trained on the fifth-generation fighter at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Although the F-35 is the Pentagon’s newest and most advanced aircraft, the oldest Joint Strike Fighters in the fleet reside at Eglin; the planes are part of manufacturer Lockheed Martin’s earliest low-rate initial production batches.

“I first flew the F-35 at Eglin. Back then, we had block 1B software,” he said of the initial computing system in the aircraft.

Santos, who’s been with the 388th for two years, added that Eglin pilots were limited in how fast they could fly, as well as how many Gs — or gravitational force — they could pull in the aircraft. “We had no data link, either multi-function or Link 16,” he said of the tactical links that give pilots the ability to communicate and share information.

“But it’s been exciting to see the program progress to where we are today … hitting 1,000 hours doesn’t mean I’m special. It just means I’m old,” said Santos, who graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2000.

“One of the most exciting things about watching the F-35 community develop over the past eight years has been not only the advances in the aircraft, but seeing younger pilots fresh out of pilot training getting to fly it,” he said, referring to the fighter by its nickname, “the Panther.”

Last December, Marine Corps Lt. Col. Brian W. Bann became the first to accomplish the 1,000-hour feat in the service’s F-35B model while delivering a new aircraft to Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona. Bann, who commissioned in 2000, also had accumulated more than 3,000 flight hours in various fighter aircraft, according to the service.

In 2017, Lockheed Martin test pilot David “Doc” Nelson became the first pilot to achieve 1,000 flight hours in an F-35 belonging to Edward Air Force Base’s 461st Flight Test Squadron in California.

— Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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