NAVAL AIR STATION FALLON, Nevada — The Navy's sole F-35C squadron made its first trip to the Navy's most hallowed strike fighter ground here over the past two weeks to hone its tactical skills and fly for the first time with F/A-18 Hornets.

Strike Fighter Squadron 101's "Grim Reapers" wrapped up two weeks of training with Top Gun fliers pilots at Fallon's Naval Strike Air Warfare Development Center on Friday, the fleet replacement squadron's latest step in putting the bringing the F-35C Lightning II through its paces toward its initial operating capability in 2018.

"The first thing is, it’s cool. The cool doesn’t wear off," pilot Lt. Cmdr. Patrick "Turtle" Rice said told Navy Times on Thursday. "It’s just a lot of new toys."

The Eglin Air Force Base, Florida-based squadron flew four of its 18 aircraft to Fallon on Aug.ust 28, VFA-101 commanding officer Cmdr. James "Cruiser" Christie said, with three main goals. 

First, he said, was to assesstest established strike fighter tactics, techniques and procedures with a new dynamic: joint strike fighters and Hornets flying missions together, as they're scheduled to do until the F/A-18E-F Super Hornets are retired sundown in the 2030s.

It's a big change, Rice said, because flying Hornets is so predictable thanks to decades of experience. Now they're learning how the F-35C handles as they go along.

"Something I've noticed with the program — it's still being discovered in real time," he said. "It's contrary to our habit patterns, where almost everything is a known quantity."

Because the Navy is the last service to start integrating the new platform, he added, they're fine-tuning lessons learned from the Air Force and Marine Corps variants, who went first.

The next test is executing another detachment with the F-35, which will become a regular part of its deployment training cycle, as it is with all squadrons.

"It is really cool to be taking this aircraft to the first places it ever goes," said Master Chief Avionics Technician (AW/SW) Mike Baker, VFA-101's maintenance master chief, who spent 25 years working on Hornets and Super Hornets before transitioning to the Lightning II last year.

"We've got four planes, doing real missions with real exercises going on out there," he said of the Fallon trip. "We're the first ones to do this, so we own that, too."

And last is to give NAS Fallon a taste of what it will be like to fly F-35s when NAWDC receives their order in 2022.

Top Gun will be home to six JSFs, according to NAS Fallon spokesman Zip Upham, which will require infrastructure updates like outdoor canopies for the aircraft, to protect the cockpits from the high desert heat, for example.

Paving the way

Both Baker and Christie, who have half a century of strike fighter experience between them, said that while switching from F/A-18 to F-35 is a challenge, they're more than up for it.

"The new aircraft — it has four tires, it creates lift, it makes a lot of noise when it takes off. Other than that, it's a completely different aircraft," Baker said.

In particular, he added, the fact that the JSFs are used across three services and several other countries on top of that, so the maintainers are sharing their knowledge far and wide.

For Christie, the Fallon trip was a bit of a homecoming, after serving as the CO of both Top Gun and the Naval Strike Warfare Center, both basedhoused there.

He studied the F-35 from an academic perspective in the past few years, but he got to put it all into practice when he took command of VFA-101 in July, where he could "fly the airplane that I knew from a glossy brochure," he said.

"When you have over 3,000 hours, the physics of flying doesn't change, and the thrill of flying never leaves you," he added. "Flying is still fun and exciting, and I'm just lucky that I'm not in khakis at the Pentagon right now."

The biggest difference, he said, is the intuitive way it flies. Where flying a Hornet is a constant dance of steering and adjusting speed with the throttle, the F-35 simplifies that balance by self-correcting its speed.

"That's necessarily incorporated into the airplane basically because the mission sets that this airplane executes are so complex," he said. "It's based off of so much information coming into the cockpit that you need to be able to have an airplane that's easy to fly instinctively, so you can devote the majority of your mental faculties to absorbing and processing that information."

VFA-101 made its way home to Eglin on Friday — a 4 and a half hour flight with one stopover — just as naval aviation's annual Tailhook Association Reunion kicked off in nearby Sparks, Nevada.

The F-35C is on track for delivery to the fleet in 2017, with the first deployments going out the following year, Upham said.