By Julie Paroline
158th Fighter Wing
Nationally recognized as the first Air National Guard unit to be tasked with the F-35A Lightning II mission, Vermont’s 158th Fighter Wing now welcomes another title: home of the first ANG F-35 pilot to graduate from the U.S. Air Force Weapons School.
Maj. Howard Shaner, an F-35A Lightning II pilot assigned to the Vermont ANG's 134th Fighter Squadron, is the first ever Air National Guard F-35 pilot to graduate from this course.
“It’s definitely an honor and privilege to attend and graduate. The knowledge and experience should benefit the VTANG much more than me personally,” said Shaner.
When Shaner attended USAF Weapons School in 2020, the graduating class boasted five F-35 weapons officers among the nearly 150 others from different communities, inclusive of space, intelligence, cyber, fighters, bombers, mobility and rescue.
“We couldn’t be more proud of Maj. Shaner’s accomplishment as the first Air National Guardsman to graduate from the F-35A division of the United States Air Force Weapons School,” said Col. Nathan “Wiz” Graber, commander of the 158th Operations Group, Vermont Air National Guard.
“The 6-month long course is a grueling endeavor that produces not only the Air Force’s finest tacticians, but even more importantly, leaders.”
The Green Mountain Boys have previously graduated officers from Weapons School in the past, but none have been F-35 qualified until Shaner.
“One of my mandates is to find and build candidates to replace me in this role,” Shaner said.
Active-duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve officers may apply for admission to the U.S. Air Force Weapons School. After a highly competitive selection process, accepted students face roughly six months of advanced training in weapons and tactics employment. This grueling, graduate-level classwork is designed to create tactical experts in various different combat specialties.
Prior to graduating, students must demonstrate their ability to lead and instruct while also effectively integrating multiple weapons systems across land, air, space and cyber domains. To become a Weapons School graduate, officers become extensively familiar with both the weapons platform or system that they have trained on throughout their career path, such as the F-35, but also knowledgeable about how the whole of U.S. Air Force and Department of Defense can be employed in tandem to achieve synergistic effects. After graduation, weapons officers are assigned to serve as advisors to military leaders, lead combat missions, and problem-solve to lead the force and integrate its combat power seamlessly alongside other military services. Simply, these Weapons Officers provide best practices for air, space and cyber combat techniques.
Looking ahead, the 158th Fighter Wing seeks to send more pilots to this course, while also planning to complete their conversion from the F-16 to the F-35. In less than a year, the 158th Fighter Wing is anticipated to be at the end of their conversion timeline and declared fully mission-ready with the F-35.
“When the 158th Fighter Wing exits conversion, Cash will be the lead instructor pilot of one of five operational F-35A squadrons. Considering the arena in which the 134th Fighter Squadron may find itself in the next conflict, it is heartening to know that we have the first and finest Air National Guard fighter pilot that has graduated from this extremely selective course,” said Graber.
“Maj. Shaner embodies the USAF Weapons Officer motto of ‘Humble, Approachable, and Credible’ and will be an asset to the Green Mountain Boys for years to come.”