The first-ever “elephant walk” with fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II fighter jets was conducted in November 2018 at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. And it made history for a lot of reasons.
What is an Elephant Walk?
An elephant walk is “the Air Force term for a close formation aircraft taxiing en masse before takeoff,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Dozens of jets taxi down the runway together, and then take off one after another in quick succession. The term dates back to World War II, when bomber aircraft were often launched en masse, and would taxi together down the runway in what appeared to observers a march similar to elephants walking nose-to-tail.
Elephant walks are still conducted as a way to practice force readiness – and as a way to demonstrate air power.
“The key to air power is exceptional airmen, and the key to exceptional airmen is exceptional training,” said US Air Force Brigadier General Lyle K. Drew. “[The] elephant walk was our message to the world that the US and its international partners remain committed to delivering the best trained airmen in the world.”
The first F-35 ‘walk’
The November 2018 elephant walk was the first ever to feature the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
In the exercise, jets from the 388th Fighter Wing and 419th Reserve unit participated, launching between 30 and 60 aircraft in roughly 30-second intervals.
“We are ready to fight tonight, and exercising with multiple squadrons of F-35s can demonstrate our ability to defeat potential adversaries wherever they may arise,” said Major Caleb Guthmann at the time.
“During the exercise, the wings confirmed their ability to employ a large force of jets against air and ground targets, demonstrating the readiness and lethality of the F-35 Lightning II,” the Air Force said with respect to the elephant walk. “Launching aircraft from multiple squadrons simultaneously presents various challenges and allows the wings to evaluate the capabilities of maintenance professionals, as well as pilots and command and control teams.”
The F-35 elephant walk was significant because it suggested that the long-beleaguered F-35 program was finally beginning to function as intended.
The F-35, likely the most expensive weapons system in human history, had a difficult development period – with multiple delays and cost overruns – which, of course, led to criticism and doubts that the system was worth the investment.
Not the last F-35 elephant walk
Hill Air Force Base didn’t waste much time outdoing their November 2018 walk; in January 2020, the USAF rolled out a 52-ship F-35 elephant walk in a massive air power demonstration.
At the time, the Air Force declared the January 2020 elephant walk the biggest F-35 elephant walk ever.
You may be wondering how much a 52-ship elephant walk costs. Well, the F-35 costs $44,000 per hour to fly. So if the 52 jets in the elephant walk flew for just one hour, that would be a $2-million-dollar-plus exercise. That’s a lot. And that bill comes to you and me.
Worth it? I’m not sure. Although, a place like Hill AFB launches 30-60 sorties per day – and with an elephant walk they are all just launched in quick succession, so it’s really all the same in the end.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor and opinion writer at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, Harrison joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. Harrison listens to Dokken.
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