For some U.S. Air Force pilots, transitioning to a new aircraft can be straightforward.
However, for three former F-16 pilots in the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, transitioning to the F-35 didn’t only mean learning a new aircraft, it also meant transitioning to a completely different service, the U.S. Marine Corps.
Roughly three years ago, Maj. Graeme Ross, Capt. Justin Newman, and Capt. Spencer Weide, were all stationed in Korea and they all decided to transition from the F-16 Fighting Falcon to the F-35A Lightning II.
“The F-16 was my baby, that’s what I grew up loving and wanted to fly, but you see the F-35 come on line and hear about all it can do with stealth and fifth-generation capabilities, and you quickly realize that’s the future,” Weide said.
There was a catch. There were still only two operational F-35 units in the Department of Defense. The Air Force was rapidly filling its pilot slots at Hill Air Force Base, and the Marine Corps needed help filling theirs at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz. To transition, Ross, Newman and Weide took advantage of a unique opportunity — an exchange program with the Marine Corps, flying the F-35B Short Takeoff and Vertical landing variant.
Learning the ropes
“It was an opportunity to take pilots of different experiences and train them together in a platform that was designed for multiple services and multiple countries to be interoperable,” Newman said.
Within a few months of each other, the pilots went through an initial Air Force F-35A course at Eglin AFB, Fla., then a Marine Corps F-35B course at MCAS Beaufort, S.C., where they also learned a few new words.
“There’s a lot of unique jargon in any military branch,” Ross said. “They call a two-ship a ‘section’ and a four-ship a ‘division.’ They still use port and starboard and fore and aft and I’m like, ‘which way is that again?’ I still don’t know.”
In addition to culture, the jets have their differences too. While similar in cockpit layout, low observable and fifth-generation technology, there are several systems differences, Ross said. The F-35B carries less fuel, pulls fewer Gs, carries a different weapons load-out, and has no internal cannon.
One of the most obvious differences is the huge lift fan directly behind the cockpit, which allows the jet to hover, takeoff from ships, and land vertically.
Hitting the postage stamp
During their exchange, all three pilots landed on U.S. Navy amphibious warships, which, at approximately 850 feet, are smaller than aircraft carriers, but capable of deploying a variety of aircraft.
“Unlike an aircraft carrier, you can take one of these smaller boats, rapidly put it off the coast of ‘Country X’ and say, ‘We have fifth-generation airpower in your country tonight,’“ Weide said. “And everything is self-contained. All the jets, helicopters, Ospreys, and Marines you need. That’s the way they live. Ready to go anytime.”
“You hear it said, and it really does look like a postage stamp in the ocean,” Ross said. “But the F-35 was designed for the landing operation to be very simple if you follow the correct steps.”
The ship and aircraft both have systems that are constantly communicating with each other, speed, heading, wind direction, and other factors.
“It’s a small target, but you’re not going very fast. Things are tight. At a certain point the aircraft systems take over and as a pilot you just have to sweeten it up,” Ross said. “It’s still a very weird feeling sitting in a 40,000 lb aircraft and hovering above the deck for a while.”
All the pilots agreed that the aircraft and ship systems, combined with the “intense qualification training,” made the amphibious landings less daunting. However, taxiing onboard a ship — with wheels and wingtips feet from the edge, or a structure, or another aircraft — was a different story.
“It’s unnerving,” Newman said. “Our front wheel is positioned behind the cockpit, so they’re taxing your wheel right up to the edge of the boat to turn, and you’re hanging out there, looking down into the water. You’re locked in on the Airman guiding you, trusting them and they’re like, ‘We got you!’”
The pilots also had a chance to integrate into the Air Force’s largest exercise — Red Flag — at Nellis AFB, Nev., with the Marine Corps. While there are differences in the A and B model, both share stealth and fifth-generation technology that give them a killer edge on the battlefield.
Here’s how Weide describes it:
“Our first mission was offensive counter air and we were there to suppress enemy air defenses and as escorts for the fourth generation aircraft. I remember hearing on the radio all of the F-16 guys just (freaking out) and that’s what I used to know in the ViperÖ not being able to see what was going on and getting shot at left and right. Now, I’m up here. I’m calm. Nobody sees me and I see everything. I understand what is happening in the whole battlespace. I remember being amazed that in my first Red Flag mission that I was calm, because of how much information this thing gives me.”
That Red Flag experience gave all the pilots a chance to see a more tactical perspective on F-35 deployment. While with the Marine Corps, their flying and training in Yuma had been geared heavily toward close air support and strike coordination and reconnaissance missions.
“Because of that heavy CAS focus, the benefit in the exchange for us as pilots wasn’t really at the tactical level,” said Newman. “It was more at the strategic level, thing like learning the reality of Naval logistics, the constraints of operating from a boat without a lot of infrastructure.”
Over the summer, Ross, Newman, and Weide, all moved to Hill AFB and returned to their native service in the 421st, 4th and 34th Fighter Squadrons respectively. Now that they’re back in the Air Force, they’re looking forward to more of that tactical F-35 employment in day-to-day training and being a touchpoint for future F-35A/B integration.
“It’s two different styles of aviation that have grown up in parallel. We do a lot of the same things, but in completely different ways,” Ross said. “But, now when we’re in a joint exercise or operation doing mission planning, and there’s a Marine sitting across the room, I can communicate with them and they’re going to know exactly what I’m talking about.”