Navy shows off F-35C at Lemoore Naval Air Station

The Fresno Bee

— The F-35C jet fighter made its first appearance at the Navy’s West Coast air base Tuesday, providing an up-close look at the nation’s newest generation of jet fighter.

But the pair of jet fighters that had been flown in from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida had to be grounded due to the Valley’s high winds, said Cmdr. Jeannie Groenveld, a Navy spokeswoman.

A flyover had been planned for local media, dignitaries and base personnel but was postponed to Wednesday for safety reasons. If a jet were to malfunction and the pilot had to eject, high winds could make parachuting problematic, she said.

Still, the mood at the base has been positively “electric” since the jets arrived over the weekend, because everyone can finally see what they’ve heard so much about for several years, said Capt. David E. Koss, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s strike fighter wing in Lemoore.

“It’s incredibly exciting,” Koss said. “People are really excited to see the capabilities the new aircraft brings.”

Lemoore will be the home base for 100 of the jet fighters, with the first to arrive in January 2017.

With estimated acquisition costs of nearly $400 billion, the F-35 is the Pentagon’s most expensive and ambitious acquisition program, according to the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The program has experienced significant cost, schedule, and performance problems, and the plane continues to have engine and software problems as it undergoes testing, the GAO said in a report that was released Tuesday.

Despite the aircraft’s development challenges, local officials said the sneak peek underscores the economic impact of basing the F-35C in Lemoore.

“When the federal government sets a budget of about $250 million for the establishment of the new air wing at NAS Lemoore, some of that is going to spill our way,” said Hanford City Manager Darrel Pyle. “More folks living in the area, with payroll, will definitely add to the local economy.”

It’s estimated that the base already is responsible for $1 billion annually in regional economic activity.

The aircraft’s advanced technology will attract skilled people to the area, Kings County Supervisor Doug Verboon said.

The Navy will build a hangar to accommodate the new aircraft, modify existing hangars, and make other improvements.

Lockheed Martin, manufacturer of the $129 million Navy version of the joint strike fighter, set up an F-35C portable flight demonstrator at the base that Verboon and others got to try out.

“I got to bomb a ship,” he said.

The F-35C has a single engine, while the Navy’s current fighter jet, the F/A-18 Super Hornet, has two. It also has a single seat, compared to two seats in the F/A-18F.

The Super Hornets have bombs attached to the wings, but bombs can be held inside the F-35C.

Pilots say the F-35C is designed to let them know what’s happening around them via a 20-inch by 8-inch touch screen that dominates the cockpit.

“It gives you increased situational awareness,” said Lt. Mike Jennings.

The 15-year phase-in will start with the establishment of a fleet replacement squadron to train pilots and maintenance personnel. Eventually, there will be 30 F-35Cs in that squadron.

There will also be seven other F-35C squadrons, each with 10 planes, based at Lemoore.

And there will be 10 F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornet jet fighter squadrons, each with 10 to 12 planes, plus a training squadron of Super Hornets with 60 planes. Although the Super Hornets will be replaced someday, they’ll be at Lemoore for at least 15 years, the Navy said.

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