Although Marine Corps Air Station Yuma and the U.S. Marine Corps have received the first three F-35B Lightning II's, it doesn't mean the new stealthy supersonic fifth generation fighters are going to be dropping bombs on enemy targets anytime soon.
Eric Van Camp, Lockheed Martin USMC F-35 Business Development Adviser, said during a recent webinar that while the delivery of the aircraft is one of the many milestones the program has achieved this year, there is still a lot of testing that needs to be done before the fighter is combat-ready.
“The Department of the Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps are going to have a fifth-generation aircraft and they are going to deploy them,” said Van Camp, a former Marine Corps aviator. “It goes where the Marines go. It is part of an unspoken contract between the Marines on the ground and the pilots who fly the planes.”
What this means essentially, Van Camp explained, is that now that the aircraft is ready to fly, the Marine Corps has begun using it, with the understanding that the capabilities of the aircraft would be rolled out and developed over time, such as weapons systems and advanced flight systems.
Another milestone the program has achieved, Van Camp said, was surpassing 5,000 flight hours last month. This was reached, he explained, by combining the flight times of all three variants of the aircraft, which are currently based at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., and the training aircraft flying at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.
In the past year, Van Camp said the F-35 program completed its first successful airborne weapons tests by dropping the program's first 1,000- and 2,000-pound inert bombs, and firing a AIM-120 AMRAAM missile. Other accomplishments included the first landing at sea, the first night flight and the first international delivery to a foreign partner.
A second series of sea trials and more weapons testing are scheduled next year for the Marine Corps' F-35B variant, as well as what is known as high angle attack testing. Currently there have been 22 weapons tests conducted. Through Oct. 3, the F-35 program had conducted 986 test flights.
Van Camp noted that MCAS Yuma will carry out the operational evaluation of the F-35B plane, which is needed before the fighter can be considered fully operational, something that Marines hope to achieve in 2015. In the meantime, he added, the air station will oversee some pilot and ground-crew training to complement the main instruction and testing happening in California and Florida.
As the home of the first operational squadron of JSF-35 fighters in the nation, MCAS Yuma will get five squadrons each with 16 aircraft, and one operational test and evaluation squadron of eight aircraft. These 88 aircraft will replace Yuma's four existing squadrons of 56 AV-8B Harriers.
Since completing initial ship trials in October 2011, the team behind the F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing variant has made tremendous progress delivering jets, conducting weapons tests, standing up bases, and training pilots and maintainers.
In what was history in the making, three F-35Bs arrived at MCAS Yuma in mid-November. An additional F-35 is expected to arrive each month until a full squadron is stationed at the base. The base expects to have an entire squadron of planes by late spring or early summer. The total transition from old aircraft to new aircraft and personnel for the F-35 squadrons is scheduled for 2020.
These three aircraft increase the number of F-35B aircraft delivered to the Marine Corps to 16 and bring the total number of F-35s delivered in 2012 to 20.
John B. “J.R.” McDonald, Jr., Lockheed Martin vice president, said Eglin Air Force base will remain the training base for all pilots and maintainers, for all branches of the service, and its foreign partners, until other training bases and squadrons can be formed. There are currently 13 F-35Bs at Eglin.
“All of the pilots who are going to Yuma will be trained at Eglin first. Eglin is the schoolhouse for both pilots and maintainers,” McDonald said. But Yuma won't be the only place in the state where these new fighters will be in the sky. McDonald also said that Luke Air Force Base was recently chosen to be the Air Force's F-35A Lightning II pilot training center. The first aircraft are expected to begin arriving there between late 2013 to mid-2014. Full capacity, however, won't be reached until late 2015 or early 2016.
McDonald also spoke about how testing on the Lightning II has progressed, saying that 14 Marine Corps pilots have already qualified to fly the F-35B.
Daniel G. Canin, test pilot for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics' F-35 Lightning II Program at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, said as of Dec. 3 there have been 388 test flights for the Marine Corps' F-35B variant, with a total of 977 since testing began.