Retiring Vice Adm. David H. Buss, who stepped down as the Navy's "air boss" Jan. 22, has guided the Navy's F-35C Lightning II through some difficult times.

But he insists the controversial next-generation fighter jet is now well on its way to becoming operational and, more than that, is absolutely essential to the future of carrier air wings.

"I'm very happy with where we are with the program now," Buss said during an Dec. 5 interview at his office at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego, shortly before stepping down.

"We still have some work to do with regard to the elements that must come into place for the Navy to reach initial operating capability with the F-35C in 2018," he said. "But I'm very happy with where we are after a very successful two-week at sea period [n November] We ended up with 124 traps and 124 cat shots and about 250 or so touch-and-go's as well."

The aircraft accomplished tasks that its predecessors, the F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets, did not, he said.

"We got to operate the two aircraft we had on board in a variety of envelopes and even got to night operations," Buss said. "The night catapults and traps — which we didn't do in the initial developmental test programs for either the F-18 or the Super Hornet — show you we've made very, very good progress."

And the totally re-designed tailhook — a primary factor contributing to the delay in getting the F-35 its first traps at sea — was a non-issue.

There were "absolutely no issues out on board," he said.

By the end of the testing, it was clear the aircraft is fit for carrier duty and is well-liked by pilots and deck crews.

The pilots, Buss said, called the F-35C "very, very easy, very user friendly or pilot friendly to fly on and off the ship."

The aircraft handlers said the aircraft was "just like any other aircraft" to maneuver around the flight and hanger decks, he said, "music to your ears, from an integration standpoint."

Even so, the Navy's purchases of the F-35 are much lower than the Air Force and Marines, which experts see as a telltale sign that the Navy's brass is taking a wait-and-see approach to the stealth fighter.

The aircraft is on schedule for an initial operating capability in 2018, when the first squadron will be established at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California.

But the squadron that will become the first to take the Lightning II into a carrier air wing, operationally, will be up to his successor as the Navy's top operational aviator, Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker.

"The first fleet squadron will form in 2018 as we reach IOC, and then deploy at some point after that," Buss said. "We'll likely transition a squadron that's already existing at Lemoore — which specific squadron I'm not prepared to talk about today because, with aircraft delivery schedules and squadron operational schedules, that patch could change several times before it happens."

Carrier Ford on track

During his two-year-plus stint as head of Naval Air Forces, which began in October 2012, the career A-6 Intruder naval aviator pilotoversaw another technological leap toward the future force, the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford.

Though it won't go to sea for another year, the kinks that are to be expected in the implementation of such an array of new technologies are being worked out, said Buss, who commanded the John C. Stennis from 2003 to 2006. Buss has also commanded the Attack Squadron 34 and has earned the Distinguished Flying Cross with Combat 'V,' among many distinctions.

"The bottom line is that we are on track to deliver Ford to the fleet at the end of March 2016," he said. "Ship outfitting continues, the crew build continues and we're deep into the testing program now. Things are going very, very well."

The crew has taken responsibility for about a third of the spaces aboard the ship, he said, and construction is about 80 to 85 percent complete.

"Now we're into system installation and testing," he said. "As an example, all four of the [Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System] catapults are installed and all are going through motor generator testing right now."

That testing involves spinning up the high-powered electric motors to the different frequencies that will be required to shoot aircraft into flight, a job now performed with high-pressure steam in the rest of the carriers. Buss expects that testing the cats with no-loads that simulate the weight of the aircraft they'll be shooting off the deck comes next. That will happen this year in advance of the sea trials that will begin after commissioning in March 2016.

Where Ford's eventual home port will be, and when she'll get there, is still being discussed, Buss said.

"Just as we do with all carriers initially, she will start out in Norfolk [Virginia]," Buss said. "Because of the proximity to Newport News, where they're built, we start them there to work out the kinks and the initial flight deck certification and training, with the assets of the company and a type commander right there.

"Then we'll make the decision as to where she's going to be homeported, but I wouldn't expect that announcement until the 2017, 2018 time frame.

In his final remarks, during the Jan. 22 change of command ceremony, Buss said he was very proud of the Naval Air Forces he was turning over to Shoemaker. It still sets the bar in bringing naval air power to bear in war the last 13 years of combat cruises have proven that.

But what he's excited about is the future, he said.

"We continue to set the conditions on a strategic playing field for decades of future success as a warfighting force, for unprecedented transition into new and increasingly capable aircraft, manned and unmanned alike, and our next generation aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford," he said.

"When coupled with new operating concepts, new technology, and bright, sharp forward-thinking minds in naval aviation today, our strategic relevance and our importance to this nation tomorrow should never be and must never be in question."