Three new F-35B Joint Strike Fighters will officially be joining the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing's Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 following a Feb. 24 ceremony at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.
The rollout of three airplanes is largely symbolic considering that the squadron was activated two years ago in anticipation of having 15 to 20 aircraft. But this debut nonetheless is a “huge deal,” says Marine Corps Col. Arthur Tomassetti, vice commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing, which oversees pilot and crew training for all three F-35 variants that will be flown by the Air Force, the Navy and the Marine Corps.
The F-35 of late has been a symbol of dysfunctional, overpriced Pentagon programs. Of the three aircraft variants that the U.S. military is buying, none has been more troubled than the Marine Corps’ short-takeoff, vertical landing F-35B. The STOVL aircraft has been on procurement deathwatch for some time and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last month removed it from a “probationary status” following a series of test failures.
Tomassetti, a seasoned combat aviator and the only U.S. military pilot to have flown all three versions of the early F-35 prototypes, says it is no surprise that the F-35B has been difficult to build, as it is practically a miracle of engineering.
“We have been trying since the beginning of the jet age to build an airplane that could fly at supersonic speeds but also do the hovering and vertical landing at low speeds,” Tomassetti says in a telephone interview from Eglin.
Since the 1950s there have been at least 15 major attempts to build a STOVL combat jet, and only two were successful: the British Harrier and the Russian Forger. The Marine Corps is seeking to replace its Harrier inventory with F-35Bs.
Up until now, STOVL airplanes have had to pay a performance penalty compared to conventional fighter jets, says Tomassetti. They haven’t had the speed, range and weapons capacity of conventional warplanes. They are also dicey to fly as they have different flight controls for vertical and horizontal movements. The F-35B finally puts STOVL on equal footing with the Air Force and Navy fighter, he says. It’s the same cockpit, same flight controls and is as easy to fly as F-35A and F-35C, he adds. “This is the first time we’ve ever been able to put all that into one package. … It’s a pretty significant engineering achievement.”
The future of the aircraft is still uncertain, nonetheless. Pentagon procurement chief Frank Kendall recently acknowledged that JSF has been the victim of “acquisition malpractice” because it was rushed to production before the development and testing were completed. Cost overruns are still being sorted out as the Pentagon and JSF manufacturer Lockheed Martin continue to haggle over future pricing. The Air Force intends to buy 1,763 F-35As, the Navy 260 F-35C carrier variants and Marine Corps 340 F-35Bs.
The “concurrency” approach — doing the aircraft development, testing and production simultaneously — clearly was a huge gamble and a departure from the traditional “sequential” method for building major weapon systems, Tomassetti says. The Pentagon was trying to shorten the cycle, and in the process save money.
For STOVL enthusiasts, however, even the Pentagon’s 20-year average procurement cycle seems short compared to six decades waiting for an airplane like F-35B. “I think we are finally there,” Tomassetti says.
At the 33rd Fighter Wing, the next step is to ramp up pilot training after the development of the aircraft is completed and more aircraft arrive as advertised. The wing was promised 59 F-35s, which would be a mix of all three variants. Once the hardware is in place, Tomassetti says the training school should be able to deliver 100 qualified pilots a year. “That’s our capacity when we’re full up and running.”
Because the wing’s airplanes that are not ready for prime time, flight operations are severely restricted. The F-35s that are now available to fly are bare-bones aircraft without many of the sensors and combat systems that eventually they are supposed to have. Pilots are only going to be practicing basic skills such as take off and landing, how to navigate from point A to point B and how to fly in formation. “When we have full-up combat capability, the syllabus probably will grow,” says Tomassetti. He expects it will take six to seven months for incoming pilots to complete the training program.
Another consequence of the concurrent development/testing/training activities is that the aircraft that will be flown by the 33rd Fighter Wing will still be pre-production models and kinks still might have to be worked out. To make up for having to fly planes that are not “fully combat capable,” the wing has been staffed with the most highly qualified pilot instructors that could be found across the U.S. military, says Tomassetti. About three dozen instructors were hand picked by senior officials and carefully screened by a high-level board that reviewed their flying credentials, says Tomassetti.
The F-35B squadron has a wealth of expertise, he says. “There isn’t another squadron in the Marine Corps that looks like this one [the 501] in terms of the qualifications of people.” The instructors are top graduates of test pilot and weapon schools, he says. “The deliberate selection of all this experience base is to account for the fact that we were going to be part of a concurrent development cycle."
Pilots are not thrilled about the training program being restricted to only fundamentals, with no fancy flying yet allowed. “But that’s all we are going to do in the beginning because of all the concerns that people have voiced about trying to do something a little different than in the past,” Tomassetti says. “Whatever risks come with parallel development, we can mitigate by putting in the talent pool.”
Flights will only be allowed in daytime and in good weather, says Tomassetti. Speed, altitude and maneuvers will be far more limited than what test pilots have been able to achieve, he says.
For the instructors of the 33rd wing, the most exciting part of the job so far has been witnessing the exhilaration that new pilots experience aboard the F-35, says Tomassetti. “It’s an airplane for the iPod generation,” he says. “It has touch screens, it has voice activation.” Aviators who have flown other combat jets are struck not so much by what is in the F-35 cockpit but by what is not in there. “There’s not a lot of knobs, dials, switches, all the stuff you find in every airplane I’ve ever flown in my life.”
Display screens show 14 different windows of information at the same time. “It’s a little overwhelming to someone of my era of flying,” he says. “When I get in the cockpit I have displays with two or three things.” Younger pilots are far more comfortable with an onslaught of data. “They have all 14 windows up and they are processing all that information.”