Meet the F-35A demonstration commander at Hill Air Force Base

F-35A Lightning II Demonstration Team commander Capt. Melanie “MACH” Kluesner poses for photos in front of her plane at Hill Air Force Base near Ogden on Tuesday.

F-35A Lightning II Demonstration Team commander Capt. Melanie “MACH” Kluesner poses for photos in front of her plane at Hill Air Force Base near Ogden on Tuesday. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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OGDEN — Meet "MACH." She's the new commander of the F-35 Lightning II Demonstration Team at Hill Air Force Base. She grew up with a mother who was certified as a fighter pilot back in the day, but wasn't allowed to fly.

Times have certainly changed — and "MACH" proved it Tuesday with a stunning display of skill that showcased her more than 1,000 hours of experience in a wide variety of fighter aircraft.

U.S. Air Force Capt. Melanie "MACH" Kluesner became the new certified pilot and commander of the F-35A Lightning II Demonstration Team earlier this month after training at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.

Kluesner spoke to the media before she took off Tuesday, demonstrating the ability to fly the length of three football fields in one second, shooting straight up in the sky, inverting and seeing a piece of Earth upside down.

"Anyone can do a regular job," she said. But being a pilot was her calling and a passion she realized when she was still in grade school, she said. Her message to the young: Don't give up.

Take the tough classes. Study. "Don't close any doors." And then, maybe this can happen to you too.

"It's the coolest thing. It's like being on a roller coaster, but you are in charge."

Kluesner comes from a military family and was inspired at a young age by her parents, both U.S. Air Force pilots, to become a fighter pilot.

"When I was growing up, I really appreciated my parents, family members and friends who believed in me and encouraged me to follow my dream of becoming a fighter pilot," said Kluesner.

Her father was the Pacific Air Force's F-16 Fighting Falcon demo pilot in the 1980s and her mother was in the first graduating class of women from the Air Force Academy. She graduated pilot training as fighter qualified, but at that time women weren't allowed to fly fighters.

After graduating from the University of Southern California, Kluesner was commissioned into the U.S. Air Force in 2014. She is a veteran combat fighter pilot with experience in a variety of aircraft, including the T-6A Texan II, T-38 Talon, F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-35B and F-35A Lightning II.

F-35A Lightning II Demonstration Team commander Capt. Melanie “MACH” Kluesner talks about flying the F-35 and then demonstrated its capabilities on Tuesday.
F-35A Lightning II Demonstration Team commander Capt. Melanie “MACH” Kluesner talks about flying the F-35 and then demonstrated its capabilities on Tuesday. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

"Being the demo pilot means spreading that message to the next generation and I'm really excited for the airshow season to begin," she said.

Kevin Ireland, with the Utah Air Show Foundation, said this year's event is slated for June 29-30 and will attract a half-million people over two days. It is among the largest on-site air shows in the country and generates $50 million for the Utah economy.

Not only is the F-35A Demo Team commander responsible for a traveling team of 14 maintainers and supporting personnel, but they also reenforce the mission of the team across the globe each year by showcasing the combat capabilities of the F-35.

"I think it's really important for people to realize that if you want to be a fighter pilot or serve in the military, it doesn't matter what you look like or that you fit the specific mold," Kluesner explained. "What does matter is being willing to stay disciplined, work hard, become a team player and care about serving your country. I'm humbled to be in this position and hope everyone who watches the demonstration is inspired to dream big just like I was when I was a little kid."

The F-35A Lightning II Demo Team is one of four Air Combat Command single-ship jet demonstration units which travel the world to showcase the unique capabilities of the Air Force's most advanced fifth-generation multirole stealth fighter jets. In Utah, it is under the purview of the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base.

In 2023, the team performed at 26 air shows across 15 states, along with seven shows internationally, showcasing just a fraction of the Air Force fighter's aerial capabilities.

Hill Air Force Base was selected in 2013 to become the first operational base in the country to house a fleet of the stealth fighter jets, which are designed to replace the aging F-16 and A-10, among others.

It was a monumental decision impacting a base that is the nation's second-largest in population and geographical size, covering about 7,000 acres.

Some facts about the F-35A:

  • The helmet-mounted display system is the most advanced system of its kind. All the intelligence and targeting information an F-35 pilot needs to complete the mission is displayed on the helmet's visor
  • Its engine produces 43,000 pounds of thrust and consists of a three-stage fan, a six-stage compressor, an annular combustor, a single-stage high-pressure turbine and a two-stage low-pressure turbine
  • Its advanced sensor package is designed to gather, fuse and distribute more information than any fighter in history, giving operators a decisive advantage over all adversaries. Its processing power, open architecture, sophisticated sensors, information fusion and flexible communication links make it ideal for next-level combat

The F-35A was developed fusing the innovation of nine countries, which the 388th Fighter at Hill Air Force Base said represented a new model of cooperation among the United States and its allies.

MACH likes to fly upside down. And you don't get to learn about how she got her nickname unless you buy her a local refreshment. Her favorite maneuver, however, is pretty simple.

It is the "Dedication Pass" to honor military both past and present.

"It is not about me. It is something bigger than myself," she said.


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Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Amy Joi O’Donoghue is a reporter for the Utah InDepth team at the Deseret News with decades of expertise in land and environmental issues.


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