Marine Corps Maj. Aric Liberman landed the first F-35B at MCAS Yuma on 16 November 2012. That same day, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121(VMFA-121), known as the Green Knights, transitioned from F/A-18 Hornets to the Lightning IIs. State and local officials and dignitaries, high-ranking representatives from the Department of Defense, F-35 program officials from the United States and abroad, and executives from the aerospace industry as well as members of the squadron, their families, and friends attended the formal transition, which was a milestone for the US Marines and the F-35 program. With the newly arrived F-35B as a backdrop for the ceremony, VMFA-121 officially became the first operational F-35 squadron.
“After all the dignitaries and everyone else went home, we had to move the aircraft out of the weather and into a hangar,” recalled Gunnery Sgt. Jason Gillette, chief of quality assurance at the squadron. “The move took several hours.”
Gillette and members of the ground crew weren’t unprepared. They were deliberate. The post-ceremony repositioning was the first time a maintenance team with 121 was wholly responsible for towing an F-35. “We wanted to do everything right,” Gillette continued. “We were taking measurements and reviewing procedures very closely before moving anything.”
That same attention to detail applies to every task the unit performs with their new fifth-generation fighters. “Our formal training may give us a good foundation. But actually performing a maintenance task for the first time is a reality check for us,” Gillette said. “We want to make sure we are doing everything correctly. Today basic tasks, such as towing the F-35, are second nature to us. They take minutes.”
Becoming more efficient is a common theme at Yuma.
“Young Marines are on our flight line maintaining our F-35s, which is great to see. They have learned how to maintain the airplane efficiently in a short amount of time. Now we are working at making those operations even more efficient,” explained Lt. Col. Steve Gillette, commander of VMFA-121 (and no relation to Jason Gillette).
Colonel Gillette underscores that the VMFA-121 is the first organization in the Department of Defense that has to maintain its F-35s with uniformed service members. “This is how the Marine Corps is going to staff and equip an F-35 squadron,” he said. “Yuma operates differently from a test site. Test sites, like Edwards AFB, have a lot more engineering support. Eglin is much closer to Yuma in terms of how it is operating the F-35. But at Eglin, Lockheed Martin provides contract logistics support and maintenance.”
The contractor presence at Yuma is indeed less numerous. A small contingent from Lockheed Martin, led by Jason Higgins, consists of field support engineers and subject matter experts who support maintenance, the supply chain, and the automated maintenance system known as ALIS (for Autonomic Logistics Information System). They also operate the ground-based training simulator. Representatives from the F-35 Joint Program Office, Pratt & Whitney, and Rolls-Royce also provide support.
“Dependency on our field service engineers at Yuma has diminished,” said Higgins, who came to Lockheed Martin and this base near the California border after a career as an aircraft maintenance officer in the Marines. “At first, the unit had only a handful of maintainers who could not do much without our support. They have since developed very fast and are now performing a large portion of the maintenance activities relatively autonomously.”
Today the Lockheed Martin team at Yuma functions more in a higher level support role. “We tend to deal with issues that are programmatic in nature and that require attention outside the squadron,” Higgins said. “Resolving these issues usually involves a combination of personnel from the F-35 program office as well as personnel from industry partners.”
The F-35 population at Yuma has expanded since that first airframe, F-35B (Bureau Number 168717), was delivered in late 2012. The VMFA-121 now has its full complement of seventeen F-35Bs—the last three delivered in December 2013.
The pilot population has increased as well. When the Marines initially stood up the squadron, 121 had only two or three pilots qualified to fly the F-35. “The rest of us were here looking at the new airplanes and waiting to go to training,” said Capt. Brian Miller, who was selected to fly the F-35 in 2011. He arrived at Yuma in January 2013 and flew the F-35 for the first time in June 2013.
Miller and most of the other assigned pilots cycled through three months of F-35 flight training at Eglin AFB, Florida, after they arrived at Yuma. They came to Yuma first to help establish the squadron, which had moved to Arizona from NAS Miramar in California. As of March 2013, VMFA-121 had sixteen pilots assigned. When fully staffed, the unit will have twenty-six pilots.
Additional aircraft and pilots as well as increased efficiencies in maintaining the F-35 have combined to impact flying rates. “Our flight operations have certainly ramped up,” noted Colonel Gillette. “We flew roughly 400 flight hours for the first year we had the airplane at Yuma. In the last two months, we have flown more than 200 hours.”
“Our rates have improved significantly,” added Miller. “When I got back from flight school, everyone was flying once every two or three weeks. Now pilots are flying at least once a week and logging about four hours of flight time per week.”
F-35 missions at Yuma can run more than three hours as most include two or three takeoffs and landings with hot pit refueling (ground refueling while the pilot remains in the cockpit with the engines running). The squadron began flying night missions in December 2013 and was flying them in March during the Code One visit.
As the Green Knights build up, Yuma will gain additional F-35B squadrons as other units at the base replace AV-8B Harriers with Lightning IIs.
The move from Harrier and Hornet to the Lightning II has not been an issue for those who have made the transition. Miller, who came from the F/A-18D, explained the transition in simple terms: “In a Hornet, we had a center stick. In the F-35, we have a sidestick. I don’t even think about the difference now. Once I landed and took off in the simulator a couple of times, I was comfortable the stick location.”
Getting accustomed to the F-35B’s short takeoff/vertical landing procedures, however, adds another dimension to the transition discussion. “You would think former Harrier pilots would have an advantage with the F-35B STOVL modes since they have experienced those modes before,” continued Miller. “They may be more versed in the engineering dynamics and physics of STOVL operations. But in terms of cockpit controls, STOVL mode in the F-35 is almost completely backwards from the Harrier. So F-18 pilots may have an advantage since they don’t have to unlearn STOVL habits.”
Capt. Jonathan Thompson, a former Harrier pilot now with the VFMA-121, confirmed Miller’s observations. “The F-35B is designed to be very intuitive in hover mode,” he explained. “To a pilot coming from a conventional fighter, hover mode is intuitive. Push down on the stick and the aircraft goes down. Pull back on the stick and the aircraft goes up.”
Hover mode control in a Harrier, however, is a little different. Up and down movement is controlled with the throttle. Left and right movement is controlled with the stick.
“Whereas I used to pull back on the stick to point the thrust down to land the Harrier in hover mode, I push forward on the stick to land the F-35 in hover mode,” Thompson continued. “That said, the F-35B hover technique is just as easy to learn and just as easy to become second nature. Former AV-8 pilots just have to be more deliberate until STOVL mode operations become more routine. Short takeoffs and vertical landings are some of skills and habit patterns we develop in the simulator.”
That intuitiveness of STOVL operations not only makes those operations easier for F-35B pilots to learn but also easier to maintain proficiency. “For the F-35, I became proficient with vertical landings in a couple of days,” Thompson said. “For the Harrier, the training requires thirteen sessions in the simulator and a similar number of flights before we actually perform first solo hover. We are required to complete about eighty vertical landings in the two-seat trainers before we are allowed to execute one alone in a single-seat Harrier.”
By and large, F-35 pilots at Yuma say the F-35 is easy to fly. Capability, on the other hand, represents a much more significant difference—one that pilots are just beginning to explore. “Although we aren’t flying with all the capabilities of the F-35 yet, we are aware of what is coming,” Thompson said. “In the six months I have been here, I’ve seen systems that we couldn’t touch before they come online.
One increased capability is the radar. “The biggest situational awareness enhancer in the F-35 is the radar,” Thompson continued. “The way the F-35 presents the radar picture in the cockpit is most impressive. The ease of use is an eye opener though. The Harrier has the APG-65 radar, which is very old. Still it provided a lot of situational awareness we would not have had otherwise. But I can’t tell you how many times I flew the AV-8 without a working radar. We performed the mission anyway, but without as much situational awareness.”
The F-35’s helmet mounted display adds to situational awareness. “Hornet pilots may have experience with a JHMCS [Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System] before coming to the F-35,” Thompson added. “But the ability to have a contact on the radar and then be able to look out the cockpit and have that contact appear on my visor is as different as night and day from Harrier operations.”
The pilots and planners at VMFA-121 are part of a larger team developing tactics and procedures that capitalize on these new capabilities. “As the radar gets more stable, as the electro-optical targeting system, or EOTS, gets more reliable, as pilots become more proficient, as the flight envelope opens up, we can look at the tactics, techniques, and procedures we can bring forward from legacy aircraft,” explained Miller. “We can consider performing those procedures differently in the F-35 because of all the new capabilities it brings to the fight. We are just starting to break the surface on tactics development.
“Six months ago we were working on basic proficiency stuff. While we’re not out there flying the aircraft as we would in combat, we are practicing armed reconnaissance and close air support missions. We will soon be transitioning to tactical intercepts.”
“People don’t realize how far along we are with the F-35,” added Thompson. “My friends are surprised when I tell them how many aircraft we have in the squadron. They think we have two or three airplanes and, therefore, don’t get to fly at all. We’re a whole division flying three or four days a week. When I arrived six months ago I didn’t think I was going to fly much my first year. I was flying right after I got here.”
Pilots at VMFA-121 are anticipating improvements in the form of software upgrades that will come to their F-35Bs. “The new capabilities are coming,” said Miller. “We are being patient because we still have so much to learn before those systems are cleared for use. In the meantime, we still try to find enough time to study those new capabilities and to catch up on our understanding of, for example, the related symbology used in the cockpit displays.”
Similarly pilots are looking forward to a larger part of the flight envelope being cleared. “Flying at 400 knots and pulling 4.5 g’s in this fighter is difficult because it wants to do so much more,” Miller said. “Tactically we are rarely going to be flying the aircraft at less than 400 knots.”
The upcoming Block 2B software provides weapon capability and expands the flight envelope to Mach 1.2, 5.5 g’s, and fifty degrees AOA. The F-35Bs will eventually be cleared to operate at Mach 1.6 and seven g’s.
Being on the ground floor as these new capabilities are incorporated into the US Marine arsenal is part of the attraction for personnel at VMFA-121. Colonel Gillette, the squadron’s second commander, explained: “The ability to influence the next generation of aircraft and the next community of Marines Corps tactical aircraft was very appealing to me. This is hard work, but very rewarding.”
The commander is not alone in his sense of significance. “I am contributing to the future of the Marines,” said Miller. “Don’t get me wrong. I love flying the F-18. But most of us are here because we want to fly new airplanes. More importantly, we want to advance the capabilities of the US Marine Corps. We know that the end-state is what the country needs.”
The newness of the F-35 also tends to level the playing field with lessons learned and experience. “If I were flying a Harrier or Hornet in the same flight with other Harrier or Hornet pilots, I couldn’t tell them anything they’ve not already learned. They are that experienced with their aircraft,” explained Thompson, one of the newest pilots at the 121. “Not so with the F-35. We are still experimenting with how we are going to employ its capabilities. Even someone with less experience in legacy fighters can discover some new functionality in the F-35 that no one else has even thought about.”
Accomplishing firsts attracts Marine maintainers to the first operational F-35 squadron as well. “We tell the new technicians, especially the younger ones, that they are in an awesome spot,” explained Gunny Gillette. “We tell them that they are at the beginning of a process for fielding the first fifth generation fighter for the Marines. They should be sponges and soak up everything they can about the F-35. This is a new adventure. We get to set the foundation for the F-35. What we are doing now will have long-term effects. We are influencing a program more than we would on a legacy aircraft. Plus everything is new and shiny.”
Eye Watering Progress
“The amount of progress the F-35 and VMFA-121 has made over the last sixteen months is eye-watering,” summed up Colonel Gillette. “Nothing has become that routine. We are learning a lot in a short amount of time. We are focused on efficiencies in the maintenance department. We are building the foundation for pilot training. And we are working on things we know we need as we march to IOC [initial operational capability, when an aircraft is cleared for combat operations]. The big pieces are falling together. I am confident we will get there.
“The lessons we are learning here will have a far-reaching impact on other Marine squadrons as well as on the Air Force, the Navy, and on international operators of the F-35 as they begin to stand up squadrons. The first year in the F-35 business, regardless of the uniform worn, will be much easier because of the work we are doing here at MCAS Yuma in Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121.”