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Tactical training exercise gives us an inside look at what makes F-35 jets so special

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CAMP DOUGLAS, Wis. - F-35 fighter jets are at Volk Field for the next week and a half, being used in the Northern Lightning exercise, a joint training including units from the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy using some of the world's most advanced aircraft.

The F-35 jets from the Air Force and Marines are training alongside F-22, F-16, EA-18 and C-130 aircraft to make sure the different generations of fighter jets can communicate in a realistic training environment.

Madison's Truax Field could soon be home to a squadron of F-35 jets as the current F-16 jet gets phased out.

"It’s like the brand-new airplane! Every nation in kind of the free world is buying into this thing and it’s awesome to be a part of that," said pilot Zachary Clements.

Clements is from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. He started flying the F-35 in October 2017 after flying the F-16 for years.

"It’s not even a comparison really," said Clements. "You go from a 4th gen plane to a 5th gen aircraft. You have the stealth -- that’s kind of the game changing technology there."

He said the stealth feature of the F-35 allows the planes to be undetected, giving them the first-shot advantage.

"In the F-16 everybody saw me from hundreds of miles away probably, and so they could shoot me really whenever they wanted to. In the F-35 they can not see you, and if they can see you they can’t really shoot at you until it’s way late, and by that time you really have already taken multiple shots against them," said Clements.

He said the F-35 is more advanced, calling it a flying supercomputer.

"The F-16 was built 30 years ago. It doesn’t really matter how much you add to it, it can never really be kinda what the F-35 is," said Clements.

Exercise director Col. Bart Van Roo compared the F-16 to an old iPhone.

"You can upgrade it and it’ll work better, but it’s limited what processing power it has," said Van Roo. "The F-35 is really more like my iPhone 10 and was at least designed in the '90s so that it has a lot more expandable capabilities. So they built it with better technology, but they also built it to receive better technology."

A draft environmental impact report released recently shows if the F-35 jets come to Truax Field, it will significantly increase noise on the north side of the city, but Clements said the jets would make things easier for pilots.

The Wisconsin National Guard is currently accepting public comment about the environmental impacts. There is also a meeting on Sept. 12 at the Alliant Energy Center's Exhibition Hall.

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