MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. --
The next chapter of Marine Corps aviation history opened March 18, 2010, as the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter descended to its first vertical landing at a Maryland test site.
The plane, which is slated to replace all Marine Corps combat jets including Yuma’s Harriers, hovered in place for a minute before riding 41,000 pounds of thrust from its single engine to the runway 150 feet below.
“Having the F-35B perform its first vertical landing underscores the reality of the Marine Corps achieving its goal of an all (short takeoff/vertical landing) force,” said Lt. Gen. George J. Trautman III, deputy commandant for aviation.
Reaching the milestone in the plane’s development confirmed the F-35B is able to land in confined areas on land and on ships, which the Marine Corps is banking on.
“Being able to operate and land virtually anywhere, the STOVL JSF is a unique fixed-wing aircraft that can deploy, co-locate, train and fight with Marine ground forces while operating from a wider range of bases ashore and afloat than any other (tactical air) platform,” said Trautman.
Despite delays and budget overages within the JSF program, the Marine Corps is marching forward to prepare to reach an initial operating capability of 29 planes by December 2012, according to a statement released by Headquarters Marine Corps on March 18.
Ten of those planes would make up the first operational squadron, Marine Fighter/Attack Squadron 332, which could be based here once the Secretary of the Navy decides on the final basing plans. That decision isn’t expected until December and not until after the Yuma community has another opportunity in June to scrutinize the final environmental impact statement on basing here.
On April 2, the Corps will activate a new squadron to train future JSF pilots and maintainers beginning this fall. Marine Fighter/Attack Training Squadron 501 will officially stand up as part of the Joint Integrated Training Center located at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, according to Headquarters Marine Corps.
On top of Yuma’s proposed planes, the training squadron would operate 15 aircraft, while another four F-35Bs would be based with an operational test and evaluation detachment at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
One way the Marine Corps is keeping its 2012 deadline, while the Navy and Air Force have backslid a year to 2016, is to receive a scaled-down version of the aircraft that could go to combat but would need to be upgraded in the future to expand its capabilities, Trautman told Inside The Navy in an article released March 22.
Still, the economy version of the plane “far exceeds the capabilities of any airplane flying in the Department of the Navy today,” he said.
While the STOVL test was successful, testers will continue evaluations with increasingly stressful tests of the aircraft to ensure it works in combat, said Doug Pearson, Lockheed Martin’s vice president of F-35 testing.
Currently, three F-35Bs continue to be evaluated at the Naval Air Station in Patuxent River, Md.
“Today’s vertical landing onto a 95-foot square pad showed that we have the thrust and the control to maneuver accurately both in free air and in the descent through ground effect,” said Graham Tomlinson, the F-35B’s pilot.
Further testing will include flying with different weight loads and ordnance, firing various weapons and evaluating integrated mission systems before working up to shipboard operations, reported Lockheed Martin, the JSF’s manufacturer.
The first plane arrived in Maryland on Nov. 15, 2009, with the other two arriving in December and February. In total, five F-35Bs will be delivered to Patuxent River.
The F-35B passed the first test of its STOVL propulsion system Jan. 7, successfully using the system for 14 minutes at an altitude of 5,000 feet.
Derived from a common design, developed together and using the same sustainment infrastructure worldwide, three F-35 variants will replace at least 13 types of aircraft for 11 nations initially, making it the most cost-effective fighter program in history, according to Lockheed Martin.
The Air Force will receive the F-35A variant, which will provide conventional takeoff and landing capabilities. The Navy will receive the F-35C, designed for carrier launches and duty at sea.
Compared to the Marine Corps’ current tactical fixed-wing squadrons, the JSF can carry more ordnance with greater range than the F/A-18 Hornet, operate from austere environments like the AV-8B Harrier, and possess electronic warfare technology and capability like the EA-6B Prowler, according to Headquarters Marine Corps.