F-35B Pilot Training: Warlords In Beaufort

By Jeff Rhodes Posted 23 May 2015

“Today we welcome an old partner to a new era. We’re proud the Warlords will once again call the Lowcountry home.”

That was Beaufort County, South Carolina, District 2 chairman Paul Sommerville speaking at the welcome home ceremony for Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 (VMFAT-501) in July 2014, as the squadron, known as the Warlords, marked its relocation from Eglin AFB, Florida. The Warlords were previously based at Beaufort from 1963 until 1997 when the squadron was deactivated.

“It is well and good that Vini Vici [I came, I conquered, VMFAT-501’s Latin motto] is back here,” added Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Robert F. Hedelund, commander of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at the ceremony. “A lot has been done to prepare for this moment. Now it’s time to get to work.”

But that ceremony essentially marked the end of the beginning, as Marine Corps officials had been planning the squadron’s move and getting MCAS Beaufort ready for F-35B pilot training for the last several years.

MCAS Beaufort is now responsible for all Marine Corps F-35B pilot training. Pilots from the United Kingdom and Italy who will be flying the short takeoff/vertical landing variant of the Lightning II will also be trained at Beaufort. The air station will eventually be home to two operational Marine Corps F-35 squadrons as well.

VMFAT-501, which traces its lineage back to World War II, is the first F-35B training squadron. The squadron had been training pilots at Eglin since 2010, sending graduates to join the first operational Marine F-35B squadron at MCAS Yuma, Arizona, as well as to VMX-22, the Marine Corps operational test squadron at Edwards AFB, California.

Pilot Training Center
The Marine Corps is expected to declare Initial Operational Capability, or IOC, with the F-35B in mid 2015. “The Marine Corps is out in front of everyone in terms of IOC. We have to get it right the first time,” noted Lt. Col. Luis Villalobos, the officer in charge of the Pilot Training Center, or PTC, at Beaufort.

“So, to support that goal, the Marine Corps determined it was a necessity to have our own training center,” Villalobos continued.” The Marines are committed to STOVL [short takeoff/vertical landing] operations. This center’s mission is to refine how we produce that capability. This is the central school house for F-35B pilots.”

“This school house took six years of planning and we had lots of challenges. But we were able to overcome them with the help of a lot of smart people,” continued Villalobos. “Beaufort was ready for operations on schedule on 1 June 2014.”

The 100,000 square foot PTC was completed in November 2013 and was occupied in early 2014. The center features two simulators—with two more to come in the fall of 2015—classrooms, lecture hall, part-task simulators, and office space for contractor and military instructor pilots, or IPs, and staff.

The simulators are a full 360 degree sphere with full, high fidelity visual system. The student gets in the cockpit outside of the dome and then the cockpit mechanically moves inside the dome on a track, putting the pilot in the middle of the sphere.

“There is more synthetic training in the F-35 than with any other aircraft. There is no two-seat version. There is only one engine,” said Mike Sorsdahl, the lead simulator technician and scheduler at the PTC for Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training. “We give pilots the ability to be as familiar as they can with the jet before actually going to the aircraft.”

The simulator combines the sensory with the visual. Students hear noises in their helmet for instance. “They can actually feel the lift fan behind them,” noted Sorsdahl. “There’s a fifteen-inch subwoofer in the sim to produce the vibrations.”

In And Out
The Integrated Training Center at Eglin covered all pilot academic and flight training as well as maintainer instruction. “We’re just going to train pilots,” said Sorsdahl. “There won’t be any Marine maintenance training here.”

A student pilot checks in at the PTC and is given a laptop and a portable stick and throttle that replicate what’s in the actual aircraft. All the files the student needs, including all the aircraft systems, are on the laptop. The PTC curriculum also includes electronic module lectures, interactive courseware, and actually manipulating the pilot training aid hardware.

“The aircraft systems orientation is unclassified as are normal and emergency aircraft operations. The classified training is the mission system training,” said Oscar “Speedy” Alvarez, a retired F/A-18 pilot and one of the contractor instructor pilots. “We cover basic mission systems and some tactical mission basics. Most of the mission training is taught by military IPs, though.”

Officials expect there will be a couple dozen contractor and military IPs at the PTC when it’s fully operational. “We’re not likely to run a twenty-four hour schedule here,” observed Sorsdahl. “We really don’t think there will ever be a need for that.”

Academics and the simulator flights cover fifty training days and fifteen flights for pilots coming to the F-35B from F/A-18 or AV-8B. “The course for a brand new pilot just out of flight school will be longer,” added Alvarez.

The PTC staff held a dry run in April 2014. “We used IPs from 501,” said Villalobos. “They came up for a week at a time, two people per week. They sat in the classrooms. They sat in the sims. They went through the syllabus and the training infrastructure.”

The first official class of four student pilots began on 6 October 2014. “We’re projecting training fifteen pilots in FY’15 and twenty-six in FY’16,” noted Villalobos. “In 2016, we’ll start our first UK students. We’re also projecting to start Category 1 pilot training—pilots straight out of flight training—in FY’16.”

Capacity for the PTC is roughly ninety-plus pilots per year. “But we won’t get there until there’s a second training squadron at Beaufort, which will be sometime in the 2020s,” Villalobos said.

On The Ramp
“Preparation for the F-35 at Beaufort was a case of walking before running,” said Col. Peter Buck, the air station commander. “We had to have funding for military construction, particularly a new hangar for 501. We had to create and manage the PTC. And we had to build STOVL landing pads.”

Additionally, the Towson Bombing Range, located just across the state line in Georgia, has been upgraded in support of F-35B beddown at Beaufort. The range is now the only range on the East Coast where pilots can drop live precision guided munitions.

The two landing pads, located just off the runway, are shaped like the deck of a Navy LHD-type amphibious assault ship. The pads allow pilots to make STOVL Field Carrier Landing Practices.

“We’ve had constant construction on the flightline for several years,” noted Buck. “Now, we’re getting ready to start work on the next F-35 hangar. With another training squadron and two operational squadrons, we’ll probably rearrange the squadrons on the flightline at some point to optimize space.”

The VMFAT-501 hangar covers 60,000 square feet and is actually sized to accommodate the larger wingspan F-35C aircraft. Up to seven of the smaller wingspan F-35Bs can be hangared in the facility at one time. The building includes office and conference space, a life support equipment room, and maintenance shops.

“We will have fifteen aircraft to start and then go to twenty-five,” said Lt. Col. J. T. “Ty” Bachmann, the Warlords commander. “We’ll eventually have 300 Marines working on and flying the aircraft here.”

In Transition
“We opened here on 7 July 2014,” said Bachmann, who served as an F-35 test pilot early in the program’s history. “It was an interesting transition.”

Normally when a squadron moves, it shuts down operations at the old base and sets up shop at the new base. “But we didn’t do that,” said Bachmann. “We were flying twice a day at Eglin. We were training pilots. We had to keep the flying schedule up, at least at first. The Marine Corps told me what I had to do, but not how to do it.”

Squadron personnel started moving to Beaufort in June 2014. All the squadron maintenance moved together, and the aircraft stayed at Eglin. Operations ramped down in Florida and nearly simultaneously started ramping up in South Carolina.

There were issues, but overall, the transition went well. Bachmann flew the first F-35B to Beaufort on 18 July 2014. The first flight supported entirely by Marine maintenance came on 4 September. The first F-35B belonging to the United Kingdom, which was also the last aircraft to be transferred from Eglin, arrived on 6 February 2015. An instructor pilot made the first night flight from Beaufort on 6 March.

“My job is to produce the amount of pilots the Marine Corps tells me and to produce the kind of pilots the Marine Corps wants,” said Bachmann. “The communications between us and the operational community is fantastic. I trained the IPs at the other bases and we talk almost every day. My tactics instructors are talking to their tactics guys to make sure we are all on the same page.”

Pilots are not complete when they get out of the PTC. The ground instruction gets pilots into the airplane and they have familiarity. “The simulator essentially duplicates the aircraft,” said Sorsdahl. “But there is nothing like actually flying the aircraft.”

In The Cockpit
Bachmann described the process of a student’s first flight, which is solo: “Familiarization Flight 0 is with the IP on the interphone cord. The student and the instructor walk around the aircraft. The student then gets in the aircraft The IP talks to the student through engine startup. The IP disconnects the interphone cord and gets in a ground vehicle. The student taxis on to the runway.

“The student then taxis off the runway with instructor still riding behind him. The student then taxis back to the sunshade then shuts down with the IP on the cord. The student then does the pilot write-ups for the aircraft with the IP watching. The student goes through putting up all his equipment. He goes through the maintenance paperwork and the operations paperwork. Then there is a full debrief with the IP.

“It’s a dry run of everything that the student will do the next day. Except this time, instead of just rolling down the runway and taxiing in, the student takes off.

A student needs seven flights for initial qualification and ten flight hours for Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization, or NATOPS, qualification. The first flight is basically takeoff and landing. The other flights cover basic formation flying, instrument flying, and combat formation flying. Aerial refueling qualification is currently done when the student pilot gets to his or her next assignment.

“I’ve been really fortunate to be in the F-35 for this long,” said Bachmann. “I’ve seen the program go from first flights to a robust and lethal capability the Marine Corps will field. The amount of effort that has gone into this program so far is unbelievable.

“The PTC and Beaufort will be the STOVL Center of Excellence for the Marine Corps. There are a lot of things remaining to do. But we now have Marines training on a Marine base. Marines like to be around other Marines. We are very happy to be in Beaufort.”

Jeff Rhodes is the associate editor of Code One.