Navy JSF, Arriving

Delivery of first fleet F-35C starts countdown to debut

(NAVY TIMES 08 JUL 13) … Mark D. Faram

On the morning of June 22, Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Tabert became a part of naval aviation history.

His role was flying the first fleet version of the Navy’s newest fighter jet, the F-35C Lightning II, on its two-hour journey from the Lockheed Martin factory in FortWorth, Texas, to its new home as part of Strike Fighter Squadron 101 at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle.

“We actually took our time to get down here,” Tabert said in a phone interview just minutes after touching down. “The weather was gorgeous and we were lucky enough to have a photo chase aircraft following us, documenting the moment, making history for the United States Navy.”

The moment was a huge step forward for the F-35, which has been fraught with delays and cost overruns.

“It’s almost an indescribable milestone,” said Capt. John Enfield, commanding officer of the “Grim Reapers” of VFA-101, the Navy’s first joint strike fighter fleet replacement squadron. “We’ve sent four pilots now through pilot training and we’ve got another four in pilot training right now. Since we didn’t have an airplane to fly, our training kind of stopped at the simulator phase. Now we have the opportunity to get our pilots time in the jet.”

VFA-101’s initial cadre of JSF pilots, including Tabert, will train the first deploying fleet squadron over the next few years.

‘Flies Beautifully’

Tabert, a test pilot, is one of the Navy’s most experienced pilots in the JSF, with more than 130 hours of stick time to date. He was the first military pilot to fly all three F-35 variants— Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy — and was involved in the initial tests of the Navy and Marine versions at Patuxent River, Md., before reporting to VFA-101 in February.

As the Navy’s most experienced F-35 pilot, it’s his job to get the squadron’s other pilots — nearly all with 3,000-plus hours flying F/A-18s off carrier decks — up to speed as instructor pilots.

“It’s not a difficult airplane to fly,” Tabert said. “The systems and the sensors are very new and state of the art.”

One main difference between the Lightning II and previous Navy fighters is the placement of the control stick, used to steer the aircraft.

“This is the first ‘side stick’ control [carrier-based] aircraft the Navy has,” he said. “That’s a little bit different than the center-stick Hornet we came from. They did a great job aligning it and the aircraft flies beautifully.”

Another improvement, he said, is the helmet-integrated head-up display, or HUD, which gives pilots their most critical information such as speed and altitude without requiring them to look down. The F/A-18 Hornet’s HUD rests on top of the cockpit’s front panel.

Though Tabert said it took a little getting used to, having the display in the helmet “saves you time in making important decisions that in legacy airplanes you may have to take a second to look down,” he said. “It makes flying better and makes you a more lethal war fighter.”

What’s Next

The secondF-35C was scheduled to arrive at Eglin by July 1. The plan is for a 15-plane squadron, Enfield said, with six or seven “on the ramp” by the end of this year.

But before the pilots start flying, there’s more ground work to do.

Like the squadron’s pilots, the enlisted maintenance personnel are still learning the aircraft. Not only do they have to become a fully functioning maintenance shop, they’ll also be charged with teaching F-35 maintenance to transitioning squadrons. Some of that starts right away, Enfield said — even before the pilots get to start flying regularly.

“We’ll go through and take a look at all the maintenance procedures that are unique in this ‘charlie’ variant of the F-35,” he said. “The landing gear’s different, the tailhook and the wings fold, that sort of thing.”

Maintenance procedures on those unique features must be validated, then the maintainers will be inspected by the Navy’s Strike Fighter Wing, Pacific, before they’re certified as safe for flight.

The maintenance is being done cooperatively between Lockheed Martin and the Navy, but officials said the Navy should take over all maintenance by late fiscal 2014.

Carrier Quals, Fleet Debut

One major milestone remains for the F-35C: It has yet to kiss the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.

That will be accomplished by testers at Pax River, possibly next summer, Enfield said.

“Once they’ve done that, then we’ll be able to start training pilots here to get ready for that,” likely in fiscal 2015, he said.

That’s about the time the first fleet squadron is expected to transition to the JSF, Enfield said.

“You’ll see them in August 2015 at what we’re calling ‘NAS 1,’ which will be either [Naval Air Station] El Centro or Lemoore,” said Capt. Mark Black, commander of Strike Fighter Wing, Pacific.

The Navy’s decision on which California base will host the jets isn’t expected for at least a year, Black said. Neither is the announcement of which fleet squadron will be the first to deploy in the F-35; that unit could come from either coast, Black said, and will be based on the operational schedule.

The jet will achieve initial operating capability by February 2019, the Navy said in a May 31 news release.

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