A U.S. Navy joint strike fighter squadron netted a safe-for-flight operations certification on Thursday, hitting another milestone on the way to initial operational capability.

Pentagon officials predict that could come as soon as late February for Strike Fighter Squadron 147. The Argonauts got the good news after successfully completing F-35C Lighting II carrier qualifications as a squadron onboard the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, another first for the Navy.

If progress continues, the Argonauts will make their maiden Lightning II deployment in 2021 embarked on the Vinson.

“The Argonauts’ safe-for-flight operations certification was earned through the herculean effort of squadron sailors and is an acknowledgement that they have developed the skills to safely maintain and operate the F-35C Lightning II,” said Joint Strike Fighter Wing Commander, Capt. Max McCoy, in a statement released by the Navy. “We eagerly look forward to declaring IOC and integrating the F-35C into the Carrier Strike Group."

According to the release, the safe-for-flight operations certification is the the squadron’s final step in their transition from the F/A-18E Super Hornet to the stealthy new F-35C Lightning II.

Thursday’s certification while the Vinson sailed the Pacific Ocean indicates that Navy officials believe the squadron is staffed with qualified personnel who can implement the needed maintenance and safety programs for sustained carrier operations. It’s a requirement all all squadrons transitioning to new aircraft must meet before being greenlighted to start independently conducting flight operations.

It’s also a sign that the squadron has at least 30 percent of their F-35Cs assigned to the unit, a process that began in January.

The Argonauts were helped in the transition by VFA-125 , the Navy’s fleet replacement squadron for the F-35C program. The Rough Raiders were reactivated in early 2017 at Naval Air Station Lemoore in Calilfornia as a training squadron.

The Navy has yet to name the next joint strike fighter squadron earmarked for the transition to F-35Cs.

Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.

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