HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Taking a fighter jet into combat undoubtedly requires some backbone, and even just putting such a machine thousands of miles into the sky takes a different breed.
Hill Air Force Base’s Maj. Daniel Toftness has successfully accomplished both of those feats, time and time again. So it’s appropriate that his official Air Force nickname gives a nod to fortitude. To his pilot buddies, the major is known simply as “Mental” or more specifically, “Mental Toftness.”
The moniker is Toftness’s call sign, which is a nickname given to most military pilots. Call signs are used as a substitute for the aviator’s given name and can be emblazoned on flight suit and flight jacket name tags, used in radio conversations and more.
“I wish I had some crazy story for you,” Toftness recently told the Standard-Examiner. “But it’s just a play on my last name (and the phrase) ‘mental toughness.’”
Though the call sign might not come with a witty anecdote, Toftness has earned the nickname.
On Feb. 18, he became the Air Force Reserve’s first operational F-35 pilot to reach 1,000 flying hours in the Air Force’s next-generation fighter jet. Toftness works as a full time Air Reserve Technician with Hill’s 419th Fighter Wing, joining the outfit in 2018 after 12 years on active-duty status.
He began flying the F-35 in 2014, months before the first pair of operational F-35s arrived at Hill in September 2015. He accrued many of his F-35 flying hours at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, and at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, as an instructor pilot. He also flew with Hill’s 388th Fighter Wing while he was on active-duty and has about 150 combat hours, spread across three separate deployments, in the F-16.
“Reaching 1,000 hours is a cool milestone, especially having been part of the F-35 program so early and seeing the jet transition into what it is today,” Toftness said. “The jet has really come a long way since those days (in 2014). I have seen multiple iterations of software and hardware upgrades that have turned the jet into what it is today, a highly capable combat machine.”
Toftness said it’s been an “honor to fly them both,” but the technological advances with respect to the F-35’s radar capabilities and stealth design make the jet superior to anything that’s come before it.
A native of Amery, Wisconsin, the 37-year-old Toftness joined the Air Force in 2006, inspired by a singular purpose.
“The main reason I wanted to join the service was to fly,” he said. “I became interested in aviation prior to the attacks on September 11, 2001, while I was still in high school. In the years following the attacks it became apparent to me that the only feasible way to make a career out of flying at that time was to join the service.”
Toftness said moving from active-duty to reserve status has been a smooth transition, especially since he was previously stationed at Hill prior to joining the reserves. The base’s active-duty 388th and reserve 419th fighter wings work in a partnership the Air Force has dubbed “Total Force Integration,” where they fly and maintain a fleet of 78 F-35s. The operation is the Air Force’s only fully combat-capable F-35 unit.
“Here at Hill ... really not a whole lot differs between the active-duty and reserve components,” Toftness said. “We work together to accomplish the same mission.”