Pilots training to fly the F-35 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., are scheduled to get their first F-35C, the Navy's carrier variant, this summer. (Lockheed Martin)
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Meet the F-35C
How much? $87 million per plane — more than the Air Force A variant ($78.7 million) but less than the Marines’ F-35B "jump-jet" variant ($106.4 million).
How many? 260 for the Navy and 80 for the Marine Corps, to accompany its 340 planned F-35Bs. The Air Force plans to get 1,763 F-35As.
How big? A 43-foot wingspan, 8 feet longer than the other variants.
How fast? Mach 1.6.
How’s the testing going? The fifth and last test plane to be permanently assigned to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., landed there Dec. 12. As of Feb. 13, testers there had made 461 flights and racked up 717.1 flight hours.
When will it be ready? Officials will not give a date but say that all three variants need to reach certain software capabilities before they are fully operational and join the fleet. Documents released in February said that Seven Pacific strike fighter squadrons with 10 aircraft apiece would start transitioning to the F-35C as early as 2015, with the last transition complete by 2028. The Navy would also establish a Pacific fleet replacement squadron with 30 jets no later than 2017. An April 2012 Navy release said the first deployment is scheduled for 2017 or 2018.
Where will squadrons be based? The Navy’s "preferred alternative" for the West Coast is Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif. — home of its West Coast strike fighter squadrons — but Naval Air Facility El Centro, Calif., is also under consideration; a decision is expected later this year. The Navy hasn’t identified proposed East Coast sites — that selection process will begin in 2014.
Sources: Government Accountability Office, F-35 Joint Program Office, Lockheed Martin, Navy
The Navy's fifth-generation fighter includes a touch-screen display that one test pilot likened to an iPad and the most advanced technology suite of any jet in military history.
So when it comes to training F-35 Lightning II pilots, officials have veered away from the traditional emphasis on textbooks and classroom instruction and toward the hands-on techniques preferred by today's tech-savvy aviators.
"What I think we're going to find is that the ... generation who has grown up with iPhones and all that technology will sit there and go, ‘C'mon, I can go a little faster,' " said Marine Col. Arthur Tomassetti, vice commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing, Air Education and Training Command.
"I grew up when you bought something — furniture, television, a game — the first thing you did was open the box and start reading the instruction manual. Today, with my kids, it doesn't come with an instruction manual; you just stick in the disk and start playing the game."
That doesn't mean there won't be any written material or classroom instruction, but compared with earlier aircraft, that type of teaching won't play as much of a role.
Tomassetti, who has flown 35 types of aircraft, said it's a different process from when he showed up for flight training at Pensacola, Fla., snagged a seabag and walked through piles of books, picking up a copy from each pile before heading back to his barracks and starting to read his way through — slide rule in hand to handle some of the more complex math problems.
"I learned in a traditional learning environment. You read books, you took tests, and teachers taught you something," he said. "Now you walk into a classroom, use a computer, no books, and start talking about how to fly the F-35."
While the variants have similar designs, the three services that will fly the F-35 will keep separate training pipelines, said Capt. Mike Saunders, who commanded the 33rd Operations Group until January and established the joint training process at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. However, the joint environment has made it possible for services to see how different branches do their work and re-evaluate their own practices, Tomassetti said.
A Naval Air Forces spokesman said the exact curriculum for the F-35C, a variant of the aircraft that can land on aircraft carriers, has not been created, nor has a start date for training the first batch of fleet pilots been set. The training's "flow," or progressing from how to operate a plane to flying in a formation with two and then more aircraft, will be similar to the Hornet, said Saunders, who turned command of the operations group over to Air Force Col. Stephen Jost and is transitioning to retirement.
One departure: Because the F-35 is a one-seater, students will be the only ones onboard during their first flight in the aircraft. A chase plane will follow behind, and there will be ground-based exercises before the first flight where pilots practice strapping themselves into the seat, starting the plane, taxiing and turning it off.
About a dozen F-35 instructor pilots have trained at Eglin, though they haven't had a carrier variant to fly — that's expected this summer, Saunders said. They have flown other variants and received academic instruction in preparation for the delivery of their first F-35C, he said. Naval Air Systems Command at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., received its first carrier variant in November 2010 and the last of five planned test jets in December 2012. One test pilot from Pax River is headed to Strike Fighter Squadron 101, an Eglin-based fleet replacement squadron, to help prepare it for its first batch of students, Saunders said.
Experienced pilots first
The first wave of pilots to fly the F-35C will come from strike fighter squadrons as Category II pilots — winged aviators who know aircraft communications, ground procedures and other skills that are common across airframes, but with no experience in the aircraft they are learning.
They'll notice some major cockpit differences immediately — a side stick instead of a center stick, for example, and a touch screen instead of a head-up display.
"It's very Buck Rogers," Saunders said, referencing a science-fiction character who may be best known from a TV series that debuted in 1979.
The former Hornet pilots will also notice better integration among the jet's systems, allowing them to focus on the mission instead of flying the aircraft, Tomassetti said.
"They're federated systems in the airframe," he said. "In a legacy airplane, and fill in the blank for whichever one you want, I would get information from the different sensors in the airplane and talking over the radio, and I would have to make sense of that."
The F-35's computers do that heavy thinking, he said.
After training Category II pilots, the "Cat I" aviators — those arriving at a fleet replacement squadron right after earning their wings of gold, with experience solely in training aircraft — will learn the Lightning II while also learning some staples of naval aviation, such as how to land on a carrier at night or how to operate the airplane's various weapon systems.
Saunders said this phased approach is similar to how pilots were trained for the F/A-18.
"They didn't open it up to Cat I's until they were comfortable," he said.
Cat I's will have a four- to six-flight syllabus, while Cat II's will have about half as many flights, Tomassetti said.
Additionally, Tomassetti and Saunders have worked with the Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, better known as Top Gun, and equivalent programs in the Air Force and Marine Corps, to help develop curriculums.
The F-35 program has grown more expensive and taken longer than initially planned, with software problems, helmet issues and, on the carrier variant, a finicky tail hook. The Marine Corps' F-35B "jump-jet" variant was grounded Jan. 16 with engine issues; test flights resumed Feb. 12.
These slips have been attributed to, in part, the decision to produce aircraft before it was completely developed, a technique called "concurrency" that was supposed to expedite the plane's development.
But it also means that the plane's full capabilities aren't clear as the training process begins, Saunders said — because the plane's technology continues to advance, some of the updates may not be included in the syllabus.
"The biggest one is overcoming the challenges in the concurrency. We fully expect some new discovery down the road here," he said.