At 5:30 A.M., it's still dark as I key in the code to enter the hangar at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, home of Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501. In the ready room, I glance at the two flat-panel displays behind the duty desk: The first has weather radar, current and forecast weather, and airfield status; the other, today’s flight schedule, including pilots, aircraft, mission, and assigned training area. I am scheduled for a training mission, a formation sortie, with a student on his fourth flight in the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II. He’ll demonstrate close and tactical formation and formation approach maneuvers. The student is talking with the duty officer about the status of today’s divert airfields—places to land if Eglin’s runways are for any reason unavailable. As I walk over to grab a cup of coffee, I let him know that we will brief in five minutes.
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As far as squadron ready rooms go, VMFATS-501’s is unusual: All the student and instructor pilots wear either weapons school or test pilot school graduate patches, and in some cases, both. In 2008, to select the first group of pilots to fly production F-35s, a board of senior officers reviewed the records of several dozen F/A-18 Hornet and AV-8B Harrier pilots. The criteria were stringent: 500-plus hours in their legacy aircraft, superior piloting skills, two years of fleet squadron experience, and demonstrated performance as a Marine. (If you consider the investment the Marine Corps was making with these pilots, you can understand the desire to pick those likely to rise through the ranks.) Six students made the cut.
In 1996, I was selected—finally—for the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School. (It was my seventh time applying in four years, proof that “never give up” is sage advice.) About midway through the year-long course, I was asked if I was interested in getting my orders changed from flight testing AV-8B Harriers in California to joining a project team supporting the Joint Strike Fighter. No promises were made about flying—at that time the airplane was just drawings—but with a few months to go until graduation the opportunity to work on a prototype aircraft was too good to pass up.
During the three and a half years I worked on the program, I watched the airplane go from a concept on paper, to a virtual airplane we could fly in a simulator, to a bunch of large pieces in the assembly area at Lockheed’s Skunk Works in Palmdale, California, to something that started to look like an airplane. The introduction to a new fighter is nothing if not gradual. First we were allowed to sit in the cockpit, initially with no power; then with power to the displays; then with the ability to start the engines; and finally as an airplane we could fly. During that phase of the program, I was fortunate enough to fly all three versions of the X-35. I went on to work as an on-site military pilot representative at the Lockheed Martin plant in Fort Worth, then as chief test pilot and commanding officer of VX-23, the Navy test squadron at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, tasked with flight testing the F-35B and C. Finally, I ended up at Eglin to help establish the F-35 training center and train the first cadre of pilots and maintainers.
The Joint Strike Fighter program launched in the early 1990s, when the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps set about developing what they called a Common Affordable Lightweight Fighter. The aircraft would replace the F-16, A-10, and F/A-18 in the United States as well as the CF-18 in Canada. A short-takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) version would replace the AV-8B as well as British Harriers.
By 1996, the government had narrowed the competition to build the new airplane down to Boeing and Lockheed Martin. As drawings became aircraft, the Boeing X-32 and Lockheed Martin X-35 underwent a year-long flyoff. An evaluation team, consisting of pilots and engineers from the Marines, Navy, Air Force, and United Kingdom, split in half so each could focus on just one airplane. No pilot would get to fly both. I was on the evaluation team for the Lockheed Martin entry.
Because the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps each had unique requirements, each contractor built two prototypes to demonstrate the three variants. When the X-35A airframes, designed for the Air Force, completed flight testing, they were converted into the STOVL B versions, for the Marines. The X-35C airplane could also have been modified to accomplish the Marines’ short takeoff/vertical landing objectives; the interchangeability demonstrated that the manufacturers had created a single design focused on demonstrating short-takeoff/vertical-landing, common design, and carrier approach.
A test program for a new airplane like the F-35 is complex. To confirm the parameters of takeoff alone, the test pilots must take off day and night, in good weather and bad, with headwinds, crosswinds, and tailwinds. From dry runways, wet runways, and icy runways. From concrete, asphalt, expeditionary matting, and ships. The aircraft must take off at light weight and heavy weight, on conventional takeoffs and short ones, and at a range of speeds. We test to learn what the limits are for each, and to determine how easy or hard it is for a pilot to perform each task. We also tested landing, flying, and delivering weapons with the same variations in conditions.