The late Steve Jobs said it best: “Most of the time, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Well, after taking a tour of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft factory in Ft. Worth, Texas, I believe yet another advancement in aviation is about to grace Yuma’s presence that will make us wonder for many years to come how it came to be.
As we entered Lockheed Martin’s facility, a chronological timeline dating back to the 1980s detailed the history of the F-35 program and explained the significance of developing a joint aircraft based on a common airframe structure. The U.S. Air Force variant of the F-35 is labeled as the “A” model and is designed as a conventional take-off and landing craft; the U.S. Marine Corps variant is the “B” model and features a short takeoff/vertical landing capability that allows the aircraft to land on austere roads, runways and ship decks; and the U.S. Navy variant is the “C” model which is capable of taking off and landing on aircraft carriers. All variants are capable of reaching Mach 1.6 and are built with stealth and integrated information and sensor fusion.
The next portion of the tour opened our eyes to the amount of precision work required to construct the electrical, mechanical and structural elements of the F-35. The inside of the facility reminded me of a sterile hospital with bright florescent lights, shiny waxed floors, perfectly displayed tools at arm’s reach and smock-dressed employees all paying close care and attention to their specific portion of the plane. As if I were watching a doctor perform surgery on a patient, the experts working on the F-35s showed the same amount of precision and quality assurance. And, many of their workspaces proudly adorned the American Flag and pictures of their children serving in the military.
As we approached the first aircraft under construction, the guide pointed out a sign that displayed an American flag with the label, “BF – Yuma.” Wow, this is really happening. After several years of seeing this aircraft in videos, articles and photos and hearing the Department of the Navy make a decision to make MCAS Yuma the first F-35B operational squadron in the Marine Corps, it’s now marked for Yuma and on the assembly line!
We continued to pass many F-35Bs slated for Yuma in all levels of construction as well as U.S. Air Force F-35As and U.S. Navy F-35Cs. From afar they look similar because of the lime green and white paper skins covering the aircraft but we soon discovered on the flightline what sets these aircraft apart.
Both the A- and B-model F-35s share a wing area of 460 square feet, while the C model sports a span of 668 square feet. The B model alone has a vertical thrust of 40,000 pounds that allows it to take off and land vertically while the C model has the heaviest weight empty at approximately 35,000 pounds. Also, all three models are capable of carrying in excess of 12,000 pounds of weapons and each tote a 25mm cannon. With a naked eye, you can tell the Corps’ B variant apart from the A and C models because of a lift system that rotates at the back of the aircraft downward and a compartment that opens behind the cockpit to engage the shaft-driven propulsion system.
Climbing a ladder to get a look at an F-35 cockpit, I was amazed at the design and functionality of the displays and net-enabled operations. My mind quickly wandered back to the control knobs, switches and displays of the AV-8B Harrier and instantly realized that this cockpit is well beyond what we currently have in operations today. This new aircrafts integrated operating systems will allow the pilot to navigate, perform reconnaissance, seek out and destroy enemies in the air, on land and sea that combines the abilities of the Marine Corps’ current fixed wing aircraft – the AV-8B Harrier, F/A-18 Hornet and the EA-6B Prowler.
What an amazing opportunity to see the F-35 under production and testing! I didn’t imagine there would be another occasion to get a behind the scenes look at this airplane before it arrives to Yuma but a few days after my return, I stepped in to the state of the art F-35 flight simulator. Nearing completion across the street from the MCAS Yuma Gas Station and Gym, the flight simulation building is designed to provide pilots with realistic flight operations practice under different training conditions. In many ways, the simulator is as important as the arrival of the aircraft itself. Well, almost!
As MCAS Yuma continues to transform in to one of the most advanced aviation training and operations facilities in the Marine Corps, the local community will be offered a rare chance to watch the AV-8B Harrier and the F-35B JSF in action. As the only two short take off/vertical landing aircraft in the U.S. Department of Defense, this occasion will mark another glorious historical milestone in the advancement of military aviation. Who knows, maybe the Harrier will have a trick or two to teach the new kid on the block. We’ll have to wait and see.