F-35B makes first vertical landing at Yuma
The first F-35 squadron meant to eventually fly the jet in combat was established in November at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma -- Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121. Until now the squadron was not allowed to perform the F-35B’s signature feature, its ability to land like a helicopter.
Maj. Richard Rusnok, an F-35B test pilot flying BF-19, conducted the first hover and vertical landing for the squadron, the Marine Corps announced. The commanding officer, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Scott, accompanied him in a second F-35B as a chase aircraft.
Meanwhile, the military has been prepping pilots on the new aircraft at the F-35 Integrated Training Center at Eglin and testing it at Edwards Air Force Base, Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., and at sea.
Although the Yuma squadron is considered the first operational unit of F-35, the jet is far from ready for combat. The squadron cannot deploy with its F-35Bs until they are upgraded with software revisions not expected until mid-2015.
The Yuma squadron is building up to about 300 Marines and 16 aircraft expected by late 2013. The first F-35 squadron is not expected in San Diego at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar until fiscal 2021.
The $396 billion F-35 program, the Pentagon’s most expensive and by some measures most ambitious ever, has been under development by Lockheed Martin since 2001.
Because of its cost, technical glitches and slipped development timeline, the F-35 program has been continually sniped at for potential curtailment or cancellation. Most recently, a controversial report released this month by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, suggested scrapping the whole program, as well as phasing out aircraft carriers.
The move to “cancel the always-troubled JSF now while simultaneously extending production of the lower-cost Hornets,” would free $70 million per aircraft for investment in unmanned aerial combat vehicles, or drones, flying off smaller ships, wrote Capt. Henry Hendrix, a career naval flight officer.
The aircraft, also called the Lightning II, was conceived as a relatively affordable “fifth generation” stealth jet to be used across the services, saving money through a common production line, design and parts. Three versions were developed: one for the Marine Corps that would protect the service’s ability to operate from short runways in austere locations and small amphibious ships, an Air Force model using conventional runways, and a Navy version for aircraft carriers.
The F-35B is slated to replace three types of aircraft in the Marine fleet: F/A-18 Hornets, AV-8B Harriers and EA/6B Prowlers.
As the Air Force tests and trains on its version and the Navy awaits delivery of its first production tailhook model, the Marine variant has faced the most performance pressure and danger of cancellation. Critics point to ongoing engineering challenges in the most complicated F-35 variant and say the Corps can do without a vertically landing jet.
The first production model of the Navy’s F-35C carrier variant flew its inaugural sortie in February. It is expected to be delivered to Eglin Air Force Base later this year for Strike Fighter Squadron 101, a training unit.