Changing of the Guard at MCAS Yuma
Since 2012, the first active F-35B squadron of the US Marines Corps has been based at MCAS Yuma. This first squadron is VMFA-121 “Green Knights”, which flew the FA-18D Night Attack Hornet out of MCAS Miramar in California before the transition to the Lightning II. The squadron received 16 F-35Bs of the first lots, four more than the usual strength of an ordinary combat squadron. But the squadron didn’t only get new aircraft, they also got a new squadron building, including a large part of it for maintenance. The Green Knights are scheduled to deploy to Japan in 2017 and the squadron is working hard to get their IOC (Initial Operational Capability) with it’s first test in the middle of this year.
During our visit we were able to speak to Major Greg Summa, the present executive officer of the squadron and future squadron commander of the training unit VMFAT-501 at MCAS Beaufort. He had about 1,500 hours on the FA-18 Hornet and has so far flown 175 hours on the F-35B Lightning II. He was full of praise for his new aircraft, emphasizing, that this is a plane from pilots for pilots. The F-35 was a big step forward in controlling the aircraft and avoiding mistakes. It didn’t matter which aircraft the pilots flew before they went on the F-35 as it is “the sum of the Hornet and the Harrier“. The pilots that came from the FA-18s can put their experience into the new mission, the pilots from the Harriers can put their experience of operations with a vertical take-off aircraft into the squadron. All in all, a win-win situation.
The aircraft systems take a lot of the former workload from the pilot. If you see a Harrier in the hover, you see a “fluctuating galley”, if you see a hovering Lightning II you see a solid plane in the air at one point. The pilots have a lot more training flights in the simulator as there are no dual-seat trainer versions of the F-35. But the simulator of the F-35 has nothing to do with the simulators of the former aircraft it replaces. This simulator is a multimedia system, which makes you forget very quickly that you’re sitting in a simulator. Up to now, all pilots in the squadron had a history as either FA-18 Hornet pilots or AV-8B Harrier pilots, there is a half-half mix of pilots. But it’s only a matter of time before new pilots from the training at VMFAT-501 will join the squadron.
Interestingly, the squadron relies mostly on its own people, especially in aspects of maintenance. During our visit, only a few civilians were seen and we were told that very few civilians of the builder of the aircraft (LMTAS) were in the squadron like in all other squadrons of the Marines Corps. The planes are treated like all other planes in the Marines Corps and not as a new toy which has to be put in cotton balls. They’re under sun sheds like the Harrier II on the nearby ramp and the hangar has the same cleanness like every Marines hangar.
On 11th June 2008, the F-35B prototype first flew without testing the STOVL properties. The aircraft was flown by BAE test pilot Graham Tomlinson. The approach to the hover flight was originally scheduled for early 2009, but it wasn’t until the 07th January 2010 that the first STVOL-test flight was conducted for 14 min. The first vertical landing was done with prototype BF-01 on 18th March 2010. The default landing area was 100 by 100 feet tall. On 03rd October 2011 the first vertical landing of the F-35B prototype BF-2b took place on the USS Wasp (LHD-1).
According to the latest Marine Aviation Plan (https://marinecorpsconceptsandprograms.com/sites/default/files/files/2015%20Marine%20Aviation%20Plan.pdf) the Lightning II should be based at two bases on the east coast (MCAS Beaufort, SC should get 70 aircraft in four squadrons while MCAS Cherry Point, NC should get 94 aircraft in seven squadrons) and two bases in the west (MCAS Yuma should get 70 F-35s in five squadrons and MCAS Miramar should get 60 Lightning II in six squadrons).
While the F-35B will replace the valuable AV-8B Harrier II, the Marines Corps will also receive the F-35C, the variant developed for the US Navy. This version will have larger wings and a different nose wheel to make it fit for use from aircraft carriers. While the Marines Corps had received the first F-35C just a month ago, there are already more than two dozen F-35B delivered to it. Next to receive this new plane will be VMA-211 “Wake Island Avengers”; their building is finished to receive the new aircraft. While the F-35B comes in numbers to the Marines Corps, the F-35C will come slower as it won’t be before the end of 2016 that the first F-35C squadron of the Marines Corps will be established. The Corps is planning to fly 67 F-35C, which should fly with the Navy from aircraft carriers compared to 353 F-35B, which are made to fly from the amphibious attack ships.
As one can see from the pictures, with the new aircraft come new helmets for the pilots. They’re made by VSI under a contract to develop the HMDS (Helmet Mounted Display System) for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft. Some of the features that will be provided by this next generation helmet system include:
- Binocular Wide Field-of-View
- Integrated day/night capability with sensor fusion
- Highly accurate head tracking hardware and software
- Digital image source for helmet vision displayed symbology
- Custom helmet shell, liner and suspension system for lightest weight, optimal C.G. and maximum pilot comfort.
During our visit we learned a lot of the F-35 Lightning II and its use in the first combat squadron. It was refreshing and great to see the enthusiasm the unit and its people are showing in being the first user of this aircraft. It was also a great experience how open the squadron handled our visit – there were only minor restrictions, far less then we were expected.
A big thank you to Captain Salinas, the PAO at Miramar and Major Greg Summa for the patience and help in making this article possible.