USMC Col. Art “Turbo” Tomassetti began his career with the F-35 in 1998 when he joined the Joint Strike Fighter Test Force, where he became the lead government test pilot for the X-35, the Lockheed Martin demonstrator for the Concept Development phase of the program.
After Lockheed Martin won the downselect and the X-35 became the F-35, Tomassetti followed the program to Fort Worth, Texas, where he represented the US Marines during the System Development and Demonstration phase of the program. In Fort Worth, Tomassetti worked on developing the cockpit, flight controls, flight gear, and operation manuals and on planning initial flight test. He was then selected to command the Test Squadron at Patuxent River, Maryland, where he was responsible for flight test of all USN and USMC tactical jet aircraft including F-35 testing. At Patuxent River, he also served a follow-on tour as the Commanding Officer of the Marine detachment.
Throughout all of his follow-on assignments, Tomassetti continued to be part of test events, working groups, and design reviews for the F-35. His final assignment in the USMC, completed in 2013, was to serve as Vice Wing commander for the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin AFB, Florida. His primary mission over the past four years has been to stand up the first F-35 training center for pilots and maintainers.
His early experience with the X-35 set him on a path to Eglin as part of the team that is ushering the F-35 into fleet operations. Code One editor Eric Hehs interviewed Tomassetti in Florida shortly after his USMC retirement.
1. How did you get selected to work on the X-35 flight test program?
I was at Friday night happy hour at the Flight Deck lounge at NAS Patuxent River when I was approached by friend and fellow Harrier pilot Maj. Jeff Karnes about the JSF program. Karnes, who was assigned to the JSF, told me the program was interested in bringing on another pilot with Harrier experience.
He mentioned that the assignment involved a lot of meetings, a lot of travel, and potentially no opportunity to ever fly any of the JSF demonstrators. At that point, I was about halfway through the yearlong Navy test pilot school. While Karnes’ sales pitch wasn’t the greatest, the chance to work on a brand new aircraft was too good to pass up. So I said yes.
Karnes went on to become the USMC test pilot for the X-32.
2. What are some of your memorable moments from your X-35 test days?
I have way too many memorable moments to recount just some here. What stands out the most about the X-35 is just how cool I felt to be part of the team—the government and contractor engineers, managers, and other test pilots. Everybody was engaged and committed to making the program successful.
I was very fortunate to have been able to fly all three of the Lockheed Martin variants. I got to fly the X-35A on its thirteenth flight on 10 November 2000. 10 November just happens to be the Marine Corps birthday. On landing, my wife and then two-year-old daughter were the first to greet me after I received the traditional wetting down at the bottom of the ladder.
I got to fly the X-35C on the second leg of its cross-country journey from Edwards AFB to NAS Pax River. Even though I landed in a mass of people and reporters, I will never forget my boss, Col. Joe Mortensen, greeting me. He grabbed my hand and said, “Nice job, Turbo. Shake a few more hands and then get back to work.”
But the highlight of flying the X-35 was completing Mission X. This mission was the first time that the X-35B—or any other aircraft—completed a short takeoff, level supersonic dash, and vertical landing all in the same flight. I remember exhaling after the engine was shut down and the battery was turned off. I paused for a minute or so before opening the canopy and said to myself: That was awesome.
The team in the control room, the folks who prepped the airplane, the chase pilots—all performed their piece of that mission to make it a huge success. I consider myself unbelievably fortunate to have been part of that accomplishment.
3. Explain the importance of STOVL operations for the USMC.
I could give a long dissertation on the importance of STOVL, but I think the simplest answer is to respond that STOVL provides options. In combat, options are important. We want to have options, and we want to take options away from our opponents. The flexibility for basing that a STOVL capability provides gives us those options and thereby complicates things for our opponents.
4. What impact will the F-35 have on US Marine Corps operations?
The F-35 will have a significant impact on the Marine Air-Ground Task Force in bringing fifth generation capabilities and flexibility. It will be an important node in a networked battlespace by gathering and disseminating information, which can increase the overall situational awareness for Marines on the ground as well as for Marines and other friendly forces in the air.
5. What are some of the less-appreciated, or less-understood, characteristics of the F-35?
The most often overlooked quality of the F-35 is how easy it is to fly. While we would always strive to develop aircraft that are easy to fly, we can’t achieve that goal easily.
The challenge is even greater for the F-35, which has to accommodate three variations that enable a wide range of basing options. Developing such an aircraft is not easy, especially one that can operate from expeditionary air strips, carrier decks, and normal runways and at the same time also be supersonic, maneuverable, and able to hover. Making an aircraft that can do all those things and still be easy to fly is an even larger challenge. But the folks developing the aircraft have met that challenge. The F-35 is easy to fly.
This overlooked characteristic of the F-35 will play a major role in reducing accident rates and in eliminating training requirements. Furthermore, this ease of flying will allow pilots to focus more on tactics rather than on takeoffs and landings.
6. How do you see pilot training evolving as the US Marines, other services, and other countries gain more experience with the F-35?
First and foremost, I would hope pilot training will be based on the F-35’s capabilities and not on the capabilities of legacy aircraft. Focusing on the capabilities of the F-35 means taking advantage of how easy the aircraft is to fly. As a result, some of the repetition in the training syllabus can be reduced. That is, repetition needed for previous aircraft that are not as easy to fly can be reduced.
Taking advantage of the F-35’s capabilities in ground-based training both in the classroom and in the simulators means exposing pilots to a wider variety of missions and scenarios than they might meet in legacy aircraft, in part because legacy simulators cannot provide realistic training in all tasks and environments.
Second, I would hope that everyone will see that commonality across the F-35 variants enables us not only in day-to-day operations but also in training exercises. Imagine the benefits to coalition forces whose pilots and maintainers trained together on the F-35.
7. Commonality is not often used in describing the program these days because of its early association with parts content across the three variants. Will the term take on a new meaning as the aircraft becomes operational?
Commonality used to refer to parts, almost exclusively. But inherent in the F-35 design is a commonality in how we fly and in how we fight in the aircraft and, to some extent, in how we maintain the aircraft. One of the biggest challenges is capitalizing on that new sense of commonality because each service and each international partner has unique ways of operating and maintaining their own fighter aircraft.
8. Fourth- and previous-generation fighter tactics relied on energy management to gain advantages over potential adversaries. What do fifth-generation capabilities do to these assumptions?
We all tend to measure aircraft using previous metrics. We have become used to speed, turn rate, turn radius, etc. I won’t say these metrics aren’t still important, but I will say they are no longer the only metrics that are important. Other factors may be just as important.
We want a combat aircraft to be ready to fly when we need it and to be able to fly more reliably than our opponent’s aircraft. We want it to be able to locate, identify, and engage targets successfully. We want it to be able to get off the first shot in a head-to-head engagement with a threat. We want it to be able to increase the situational awareness of the pilot and of the others in the battlespace. Fifth generation brings all these additional measures to the table—measures beyond aircraft maneuverability. And these additional capabilities should come into account when assessing the F-35.
9. How do fifth-generation capabilities affect the way you train new fighter pilots, particularly Marine fighter pilots?
Teaching all of those capabilities, I noted, is a new challenge for the F-35. We need to introduce and explain those capabilities to pilots. Then we need to make sure pilots understand what the capabilities mean and how those capabilities affect them and their mission. Then we give pilots the time to become comfortable with these capabilities both in ground training and in flight.
We then let them perform as tacticians in employing the aircraft. Not just in their aircraft, but also within the group of aircraft they are flying. I think honing those tactical skills in training is going to be a big difference from how we train today. The F-35’s strength is derived not so much from an individual aircraft as from a group of two or four aircraft flying, or operating, together. Capitalizing on that strength requires a different approach to training.
10. What will you miss most about the job you are leaving at Eglin?
I will miss a lot of things. At the top of the list, I will miss taking new students out on their first flights in the F-35. Seeing their reaction to the aircraft after the flight makes worthwhile all the time spent on this program—the countless hours in engineering simulators, meetings, working groups, planning, and testing—and on building the training center at Eglin.
Members of VMFAT-501, the USMC training unit at Eglin, took me in as one of their own and allowed me to end my active duty time in the ready room with a bunch of Marines sharing lessons learned, ideas, and pride. I can’t imagine a better final assignment than being an instructor pilot at Eglin and having the chance to watch the F-35 come into its own.