Navy F-35C pilot gears up for testing on carrier Ike

By Lance M. Bacon, Staff writer

Do you want to know what it is like to fly the Navy’s F-35C joint strike fighter?

Well, that’s too bad, because “there are no words to describe it,” Lt. Cmdr. “Anoya” Hess said. He has been a JSF driver for two years and is still at a loss for words.

“It is an amazing piece of machinery,” he said.

The Navy’s next big JSF test is set for mid-October, if weather permits. Two F-35Cs, the Navy’s carrier-landing variant, are set to spend 10 days training with carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower off the Virginia coast. The pair will conduct day and night carrier qualifications, night operations with the Generation III Helmet Mounted Display, Delta Flight Path testing, and F-35 Joint Precision Approach and Landing System testing.

Hess, who served as a landing signal officer when JSF made its first carrier landing aboard the carrier Nimitz in November 2014, will do so again when two test birds run carrier trials in October. Navy test pilots Cmdr. Tony “Brick” Wilson and Lt. Chris “TJ” Karapostoles on Oct. 2 landed two test aircraft on Eisenhower. Countless simulator landings and practice at the JSF’s home base of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, has given Hess confidence that the evolution will run smooth. Still, he admits that he is “really excited to see what it can do behind the boat.”

The former F-14 Tomcat pilot, who went on to fly F/A-18 Super Hornets, described the JSF as a combination of current technologies and lessons learned from previous fighters.

“It takes that entire operational picture and gives you complete [situational awareness] as to what is going on in the battle space at all times and enables you to share with other assets in the fight with you,” said the 14-year vet, who asked Navy Times to withhold his first name out of concern for his security.

Despite the jet’s leap-ahead technology, the learning curve is not as steep as one might expect, he said.

Much of that is due to the $600,000 helmet, which Hess identified as the hardest thing to leave behind if he were to return to flying Super Hornets. Its visor replaces the traditional Heads-up Display. Every detail the pilot needs, from flight data to targeting information, is displayed in the helmet.

Then you add in the Distributed Aperture System, which streams real-time imagery from six infrared cameras. This allows pilots to “look through” the airframe.

Second only to the helmet on Hess’ list is the ease of flight controls. It is “very simple to handle whenever tasks are going on from a mission standpoint,” he said.

Cool as it may be, the JSF is not without challenges. Its delays have been many and the cost has soared to $400 billion. Worse yet, the fighter was on the losing end of a July dogfight with the more maneuverable (and much older) Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon. That same month, Marine Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford — who is now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — declared the Marines’ jump-jet variant as operationally sound. That was countered by J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s top weapons tester, who took issue with the evaluation rather than the fighter’s capabilities, and said the event “did not — and could not — demonstrate that Block 2B F-35B is operationally effective or suitable for use in any type of limited combat operation, or that it was ready for real-world operational deployments, given the way the event was structured.”

In August, testers discovered concerns that pilots who weigh less than 136 pounds have an increased risk of injury during a low-speed ejection.

Strike Fighter Squadron 101, the “Grim Reapers,” will welcome its first pilots from the operational test community in November. Hess is one of the squadron’s 15 pilots. The Grim Reapers was the last F-14 Fleet Replacement Squadron. It was disestablished in 2005 but rose again one month short of its 60th anniversary in 2012. The squadron is tasked with training JSF pilots and maintainers, and development of its tactics and the training syllabus.

Back to Top