Navy’s First Joint Strike Fighter Arrives

Now F-35C pilots will train in jet, not simulator

(SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE 23 JUN 13) … Jeanette Steele

On Saturday, the Navy got its first operational F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet adapted for landing on an aircraft carrier.

The F-35C flew into Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and was met with subdued Navy fanfare, considering the importance of the moment to naval aviation.

It’s a milestone in the development of the U.S. military’s next-generation fighter, which has been plagued by delays and cost overruns.

The Navy’s future F-35 pilots can now begin training in an actual jet, after spending months in simulators.

“It’s an almost indescribable milestone for us,” said Capt. John Enfield, commanding officer of VFA-101, the Navy’s first F-35 pilot training squadron. The squadron is headquartered at Eglin.

Before this, the Navy had four F-35C planes – the “C” stands for carrier – but they have been used only as test planes, flown by test pilots at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland.

Enfield said his squadron has trained four pilots in the F-35 simulator. Another four are currently going through that process.

Later this summer, those pilots will step into the jet to get their first in-cockpit flying experience in the F-35C. Navy mechanics will also be training on how to maintain the new jet.

Enfield said his goal is that by September 2014 Navy pilots will be flying the F-35C, with Navy mechanics maintaining it on the ground.

Those pilots won’t be landing the new jet on an aircraft carrier until fiscal 2015. But test pilots will take the fighter out to flattops next summer, Enfield said.

The training squadron will grow by four to six jets a year until it gets to the expected 15 planes.

The first non-training F-35C squadron will make its home on the West Coast by roughly August 2016, officials said.

The location hasn’t been announced, but it will either be in Lemoore, in California’s Central Valley, or in El Centro, just 115 miles east of San Diego on the Mexican border.

Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Chula Vista, has pushed the Defense Department to consider the financial advantages of putting the squadron in El Centro.

The Joint Strike Fighter – the Pentagon’s most expensive program ever – will replace the Navy’s F/A-18 jet. The Air Force will get its own version, the F-35A. The Marine Corps gets the F-35B, which has the ability to land vertically on the small flight deck of a Marine troop ship.

The F-35C differs in that it has a “tailhook” that will catch the arresting cables on an aircraft carrier deck, allowing the plane to stop abruptly. Its wings also fold in half so it can be stored in a ship’s hangar bay.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Tabert flew the F-35C on Saturday. He said the plane wasn’t hard to learn, though the stick used to maneuver the jet is on the side, not between the legs of the pilot, as in the F/A-18.

Also, the F-35 delivers an electronic readout into the pilot’s helmet, so that all the information he or she needs to fly the plane is viewed in the helmet.

About that feature, Tabert said it felt a little different at first but he got used to it.

“All the information you need for situational awareness is right there (in the helmet),” he said. “It gives you time to make very important, quick decisions that other times, in legacy (F/A-18) aircraft, you may have to take a second to look down.”

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