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Vertical landings hit the mark in F-35B's tests

From Virginian Pilot

The crew of the Wasp hasn’t gone far since leaving Norfolk in early October. The amphibious assault ship has spent weeks steaming through a small, pie-shaped wedge of water off Virginia’s eastern shore. It doesn’t stray more than 12 miles from land.

Despite its geographic confinement, the Wasp is making history. Test pilots have been flying two test versions of the next generation Marine fighter jet - the F-35B - onto and off of the ship’s flight deck for weeks, the first time the models have operated at sea.

It will be years until the single-engine fighters are ready for deployment. But after more than a decade of development, significant cost overruns and criticism from top Pentagon leaders, the F-35B is finally proving that it is a supersonic fighter capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings on ships.

Tuesday, a test pilot demonstrated the F-35’s capabilities for a dozen reporters invited aboard the Wasp.

Although similar to the models that will be flown by the Air Force and Navy, the Marine version of the F-35 has special requirements for operating from amphibious assault ships.

Unlike aircraft carriers, amphibious ships lack catapults for launching jets and arresting wires for recovering them. Because of that, takeoffs and landings appear far less violent than similar operations on aircraft carriers.

On takeoff, the F-35B’s pivoting nozzle directs hot engine exhaust downward while a lift-fan in the fuselage pushes out a column of cool air. Together, they provide additional thrust the jet needs to get airborne off a short runway and to hover over the deck when landing.

Instead of approaching the deck at full power to grasp a wire with a tailhook, the F-35B approaches the stern from the port side, slows down to a hover, moves sideways into position above an appointed spot, then drops to the flight deck with a bounce, like a gymnast landing lightly.

Marine Lt. Col. Matt “Squirt” Kelly, one of the test pilots, used to fly F/A-18 Hornets. Until two weeks ago, he’d never landed a plane in a hover on an amphibious ship.

Bringing the F-35 back to the Wasp is a dream compared with landing on an aircraft carrier.

“The challenge is not, ‘Am I going to get the airplane on board?’ ” Kelly said. “The challenge becomes 'Can I put my nose tire in a 1-foot by 1-foot square box where I want to on the deck?’ ”

A pilot with Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Kelly said flying the F-35B from the Wasp felt natural. “It’s all very intuitive,” he said. He had worried a bit about having to use rudder pedals to keep the plane straight on takeoff, something that isn’t a concern with a catapult shot off a carrier.

But it wasn’t an issue, he said.

Short takeoff/vertical landing aircraft aren’t new. The Marine Corps has flown the AV-8B Harrier since the 1980s. It has been deploying the V-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor craft that’s something of a mix between a helicopter and turboprop plane, since 2007.

But the F-35B will be the first supersonic fighter jet to operate from an amphibious ship - meaning the Navy could eventually use its eight Wasp-class multipurpose amphibious assault ships as small aircraft carriers.

Col. Roger Cordell, director of test and evaluation for the naval and Marine versions of the F-35, said the planes have generally performed as expected - and in some ways, even better.

Engineers initially thought the jet would create far more turbulence on the flight deck because it’s much more powerful than the Harrier.

Cordell said for the first few flights off the Wasp, the shooter - the flight deck crewmember who taps the flight deck, signaling final permission for pilots to takeoff - was told to tuck his head down, run to the ship’s island (superstructure) and hold on for the actual launch.

After a number of takeoffs, Cordell said, the shooter said that precaution seemed unnecessary. Couldn’t he just hold onto one of the metal rings set into the flight deck, like he did when Harriers launched? The engineers assented.

Engineers were also concerned about the forward-most flight deck crewmember - the bow-waver, who signals to the shooter that there’s no interference before takeoff.

“He is right at the point where the wing is demanding the most lift possible, where you’d expect outwash and potential problems. He stands there as if he has very few cares in the world,” Cordell said.

Adm. Kevin Scott, the commander of Expeditionary Strike Group Two, seconded that point.

“I didn’t believe it at first. So I walked up there and stood next to him. It was really impressive,” Scott told reporters.

Capt. Brenda Holdener, the commanding officer of the Wasp, said the ship has been preparing for the F-35 testing for months. It was removed from the regular deployment cycle for the task.

In preparation for the first round of developmental testing, some of its weapons systems and satellite equipment were removed to make way for sensors that measure the force, heat and sound produced by the engine and specialized lift-fan.

The Wasp has operated as usual, except it’s stayed close to shore as a safety precaution in case the jets ran into trouble and needed to land ashore, Holdener said. The most important thing for ships doing air operations is maneuvering them so the wind passes over the deck. “We chase the wind,” she said. In this case, the chasing occurred within a zone eight miles long and 11 miles wide.

Cmdr. Steve McKone, the Wasp’s air boss, said the biggest difference with the F-35 is its size - it’s about 30 percent larger than the Harriers that were operating on the ship a month ago. He sent 45 sailors to Patuxent River Naval Air Station to train with the new jets, and said that helped make for a “seamless transition.”

His sailors were glad to be part of the testing.

“You don’t get the chance to make history very often,” McKone said. “It’s a big deal to be the first people in the Navy to operate a jet at sea.”

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In this photo set, two VMGR-352 “Raiders” KC-130J Super Hercules aircraft took off in preparation for the airshow’s mass marine exercise. The two Harriers in both photos are VMA-214 jets.

The exercise consists of a large number of marines and equipment to simulate a hostage rescue mission at a deployed location.