Check Out These Stunning Photographs Of Four F-35s In “Beast Mode” During “Panther Beast” Competition At Luke AFB

F-35 4-ship fully loaded with GBU-12s (internal and external) heading to the targets during "Panther Beast". (All images: Lockheed Martin/Matt Short).

This was the first time Luke AFB launched a four-ship with both internal and external weapons, a configuration known as “Beast Mode”.

“Beast Mode” is not an official or technical term. At least not within the U.S. Air Force. However is a pretty common way an F-35 configuration involving both internal and external loads is dubbed. Actually, others call any configuration involving external loads “Bomb Truck” or “Third Day of War” configuration.

In fact, as opposed to a “First Day of War” loadout, in which the F-35 would carry weapons internally to maintain low radar cross-section and observability, the “Third Day of War” configuration is expected to be used from the third day of an air campaign when, theoretically, enemy air defense assets (including sensors, air defense missile and gun systems and enemy aircraft) have been degraded by airstrikes (conducted also by F-35s in “Stealth Mode”) and the battlespace has become more permissive: in such a scenario the F-35 no longer relies on Low-Observability for survivability so it can shift to carrying large external loads. These conditions are not always met. For instance, LO was not needed when the F-35A was called to carry out the first air strike in the Middle East, nor when the U.S. Marine Corps F-35B carried out the first air strike in Afghanistan.

Anyway, in “Beast Mode“, exploiting the internal weapon bays, the F-35 can carry up to 2x AIM-9X (pylons), 2x AIM-120 AMRAAM (internal bomb bay) and 4x GBU-31 2,000-lb (pylons) and 2x GBU-31  PGMs (internal bay). However, the loadout can be different, with lighter GBU-32s or GBU-12 500-lb LGB (Laser Guided Bombs) as shown in the following table:

The F-35’s certified weapons loadout up to Block 3F software. (Image credit: LM).

“Panther Beast” is a competition organized by 63rd Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, on Aug. 27, 2019. The name comes from the 63rd’s nickname (“Panther”) and the fact that missions were flown in “Beast Mode”.

Air-to-Air Refueling from a KC-135.

“The competing pilots flew 50 miles to acquire and destroy 6 to 12 targets over a 45-minute period in hopes of becoming the winners of ‘Panther Beast’,” said Lt. Col. Curtis Dougherty, 63rd Fighter Squadron commander, in a Luke AFB release.

“After landing, the tape review will reveal the truth, and we’ll celebrate the victors at a fighter squadron and aircraft maintenance unit awards ceremony,” said Dougherty.

There were 4 aircraft involved in the competition dropping 24 GBU-12s. Noteworthy, this was the first time Luke AFB launched a four-ship with both internal and external weapons.

GBU-12 separation.
Four F-35s (3 in Beast Mode and 1 without external weapons but with Radar Reflectors).

That said, “Panther Beast” was not only about flying the F-35As to the target area and drop the bombs: it was a joint effort that involved airmen from multiple units working together to build the munitions used, maintain the aircraft and fly the jets.

Turning low level.

Dougherty said it was their cooperation that made the competition possible.

“The work started weeks before weapons hit targets,” he said. “Our AMU has been hard at work loading aircraft with external pylons that we’ve never flown with before at Luke. Ammo has spent countless hours building more weapons than we’ve ever dropped in this squadron’s history. The pilots have spent that time planning: determining which targets and attacks will challenge the squadron’s instructors and ensuring everyone has the knowledge requisite to succeed. On the day of the mission, it all comes together.”

When the F-35 carries all of its weapons internally it maintains its low observability or “stealth” capability. This is a critical asset during the earliest phase of a conflict when combat aircraft are operating in a non-permissive environment with threats like surface-to-air missiles, automatic radar guided anti-aircraft guns and enemy aircraft. The F-35s low observability and internal weapons bay enable it to operate with greater autonomy in this high-threat environment. Once the surface-to-air and air-to-air threat is moderated the F-35 can begin to prosecute targets using externally carried precision strike munitions that will increase the aircraft’s radar signature but are employed at a time when enemy air defenses have been suppressed and are less of a threat to aircrews.

While the competition is a special event, maintenance, ammo and pilots work together to perform these tasks frequently. Dougherty said, it’s this synergy that allows our Air Force to be an effective fighting force.

F-35s about to refuel from a KC-135 of the 161st Air Refueling Wing, Arizona ANG.

“Panther Beast” was also an opportunity to take some stunning photographs of the aircraft transitioning to the target area, refueling and dropping bombs, like those you can find in this post, taken by Lockheed Martin’s Matt Short.

Simulatenous drop of GBU-12s from internal weapons bay.

Luke AFB is the training hub for Lightning II’s pilot and maintainers from Australia, Norway, Italy, the Netherlands, Japan and Israel. F-35 pilot training began at Luke just over a year after the 56th Fighter Wing received its first F-35A in 2014. According to LM, eventually, the 56th Fighter Wing will be home to 144 F-35s in the future.

The 63rd FS is one of the three dedicated F-35 training squadrons at Luke (the other being the 61st and 62nd FS).

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.