visits the USS Nimitz and the F-35C.


It’s been almost 8 years since the first F-35 Lightning II (a.k.a. the Joint Strike Fighter) took flight, but after many delays and massive cost overruns the F-35 is finally nearing the end of initial testing.  Soon, it will go into full production by Lockheed Martin with help from other defense contractors Northrop Grumman, Pratt & Whitney, and BAE Systems.

Three different variants were designed; for the U.S. Air Force (Model A), the U.S. Marine Corps (Model B) and the U.S. Navy (Model C). The differences between the 3 are fairly simple. The “A’ is your conventional take off and landing variant, a strictly a land-based fighter, the “B” has the short-take off and vertical-landing capabilities such as the AV-8 Harrier II, and the “C” is the carrier-based version with re-enforced landing gear and a tail hook.

Each variant can carry the same weapons and load, but the “A” and “C” each have a non-combat range of 1200 nautical miles, where the “B” has only 900 nautical miles. The combat range is approx. 600 nautical miles, with the maximum speed reaching Mach 1.6 .

After much testing and passing several milestones throughout 2011, the Marine Corps received their first three planes in November, 2012. The first allied nation to receive theirs occurred when the United Kingdom accepted the first international F-35 Lightning II aircraft in a ceremony on July 12, 2012.

On December 13, 2013, Lockheed Martin celebrated the production of the 100th F-35 with employees and guests from the U.S. Air Force. The 100th F-35 was an F-35A model destined for Luke Air Force Base Arizona to be used for U.S. Air Force and international partner pilot training.

The first F-35C Lightning II Navy variant arrived at Strike Fighter Squadron 101, located at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, on June 22, 2013. Continued testing finally brought F-35Cs onto an aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz (CVN 68). On November 3, 2014, the Navy made aviation history, as an F-35C Lightning II conducted its first arrested landing aboard an aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego. Navy test pilot Commander Tony Wilson landed the CF/05 or #75 F-35C test aircraft at 12:18 p.m. aboard the USS Nimitz. Subsequent shipboard testing would last for 14 days.

“Today is a landmark event in the development of the F-35C,” said Wilson, a Navy test pilot with Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX- 23). “It is the culmination of many years of hard work by a talented team of thousands. I’m very excited to see America’s newest aircraft on the flight deck of her oldest aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz.”

On November 13th, was invited to fly out to the USS Nimitz to observe the continued testing of the two F-35C’s that were aboard.

After I arrived at Naval Air Station North Island (NASNI), an escort from the Public Affairs Office, Naval Air Forces delivered our small group of media representatives to the base passenger terminal where  we boarded a Grumman C-2A “Greyhound” from Navy squadron VRC-30, the “Providers”. Taking off from NASNI, we flew approximately 100 miles off of the coast of southern California, and landed smoothly aboard the Nimitz. A tour of the flight deck was given and with only the two F-35C’s, a F/A-18 Hornet chase plane from VX-23, and 2 MH-60 Seahawks on board, the flight deck looked larger than it normally does when an air wing is aboard.

Interviews with the test pilots and Lockheed Martin personnel were given; later one of the F-35Cs would continue testing with a few launches and traps (landings) before our departure. While there seemed to be plenty of wind this day, it apparently was not going to be fast enough for the testing that was scheduled. Captain John Ring, Commanding Officer of the Nimitz, made the comment “well, if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, we’ll make our own wind” as the Nimitz would be pushed to her maximum speed to help with the wind and the launches.

Vice Admiral David H. Buss, Commander, Naval Air Forces summed up this phase of testing; “So, what is the testing off the coast of San Diego all about? We began the initial aircraft carrier testing of the F-35C with the first arrested landings Nov. 3, and followed up the next morning with the first catapult launches. These important milestones take us one step closer to outfitting our future carrier air wings with this stealthy high-performance fighter. The F-35C combines radar-evading stealth, supersonic speed and incredible agility with the most powerful and comprehensive integrated sensor package of any fighter aircraft in history to provide unprecedented lethality and survivability. As with all initial testing of new carrier-based aircraft, we hope to learn that the F-35C is as easy to launch and recover aboard an aircraft carrier as our simulations and shore-based testing indicate. We further expect a thorough assessment of how well the F-35C will operate with all the systems aboard an aircraft carrier. We will then use what we learn in this testing to make any adjustments necessary to ensure that when we deliver this aircraft to the fleet it is fully capable and ready to dominate in combat. This test-learn-adapt-test again philosophy has served us well in the past”.


Cmdr. Wilson took time to discuss the testing of the F-35C and the carrier  take offs and landings (traps). Cmdr. Wilson, who has previously flown F/A-18 C’s& F’s, recorded his 500th trap during this current round of testing, while in a F-35C.

PR: What have you learned so far in this series of tests, any issues?

Wilson: “We are conducting developmental tests and we are learning, and the results thus far have been promising. The issues we’ve had have been very minor and expected. We expected to have some problems, but to our surprise, everything has been going well. What we have learned is that the plane is integrating very well, with the sensor usage and our network capabilities, as well as our maintenance and sustainability”.

PR: What was the main difference between the F/A18 and the F-35 when making your traps?

Wilson: “The handling qualities are nice, and the landing difference between the F/A-18 and the F-35C, is with the Control Laws software. The plane is very well behaved and the trap itself with the F-35C seems softer when landing”.

PR: What are the Control Laws?

Wilson: “The Control Laws, is revolutionary software that is in our flight control computers, and is designed to help the pilot land, making minute adjustments as the plane approaches the deck, making landing almost an administrative task, thus making the approaches and landings easier for the pilot. it will increase our safety margins out here”. So when you hear, “fly by wire” this is what were talking about. It’s basically the software in the computers that helps us fly the jet”.

PR: How is the new helmet working? (The F-35 Gen III Helmet Mounted Display System (HMDS) built by Rockwell Collins ESA Vision Systems International combines infrared, night-vision, augmented and virtual reality to let pilots see more than ever before — including right down through the plane itself).

Wilson: The helmet performance has been going very well. We have not seen any issues with the helmet thus far and it is performing as advertised. We currently are still using the Gen II helmet.


This series of testing has been done “Clean Wings”, with no ordinance stored under the aircrafts wings.  That phase is schedule for sometime in 2015. The F-35C is not expected to reach the actual fleet until 2018.

Standing high above the flight deck, we positioned ourselves along Vulture’s Row (an observation area on the “Island” of the Carrier). We watched Commander Wilson in the cockpit, readying his aircraft for launch. The Nimitz turned into the wind and was going at 30+ knots.  Soon, the jet was guided to its launch position.

Cmdr. Wilson and the F-35C roared to life and took off with only a slight dip, once off of the flight deck. He climbed in elevation and did several looping passes with gear down around the Nimitz, before coming in for a landing about 10 minutes later. After refueling, Cmdr. Wilson repeated this  flight profile and soon it was time for us to leave the Nimitz and reboard our C-2A Greyhound and fly back to NASNI.

After we left the Nimitz, the first night time launch and recovery of the F-35C was successfully conducted.

I would like to thank the United States Navy’s 3rd Fleet, Rear Admiral Dee Mewbourne, Commander, Carrier Strike Group 11, Captain John Ring, Commanding Officer of the USS Nimitz, Lt. Commander Clint Phillips, the USS Nimitz Public Affairs Officer and his staff, Commander Jeannie Groeneveld, the Naval Air Forces Public Affairs Officer and her staff, Commander Tony Wilson, test pilot for VX-23, and lastly Jim Gigliotti, Director, F-35C, and Navy Program Manager, and the rest of the fine people from Lockheed Martin, for this wonderful opportunity of observing Naval history in the making.

Douglas Aguillard

Douglas (Doug) Aguillard is a Freelance Photojournalist who specializes in the Military & Aviation fields. Based in San Diego, CA, he is a Marine veteran., He currently is a photojournalist for the Military Press Newspaper, the Historical / Archival Dept. photographer for the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum at MCAS Miramar, and a very proud member of Photo Recon, and has been published in various magazines and books such as "Combat Aircraft Monthly" magazine, "Vertical " magazine, "Wings of Gold" magazine, Sikorsky Frontlines newsletter, and the San Diego Air & Space Museum's Book: "Celebrating the San Diego Air & Space Museum: A History of the Museum and it's collections".

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