Flying a Multiple Ship Training Mission: A Two Division F-35 Operation for the Warlords


2013-04-27 by Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

We have written frequently about the F-35 and its coming role as a fleet.

The plane was designed from the ground up to operate in multiple plane formations and to share data across the formation as well as with the joint and coalition forces operating with them.

Now the Eglin training facility along with the folks at the Yuma Air Station are working the initial operation of a fleet.

With the Marines, the approach is always to get the system into operation, and shape its capabilities and evolve those over time.

The USMC understands the risk of operating legacy systems beyond their time and the need to deploy new capabilities to support the warfighter.

They did this with the Osprey versus the CH-46.  The Ospreys were deployed to Iraq in 2007 in part because a sense of the vulnerabilities facing the CH-46.

Indeed, a CH-46 had been hit by a manpad and the USMC leadership recognized the need to get a new system in place to protect the Marines and start the generational shift.

The USMC leadership certainly does not want to repeat this situation where its legacy F-18s and Harriers are threatened in operational conditions where the F-35B would prevail.

The USMC has a sense of urgency about this plane.

According to a senior Marine Corps leader (recently retired):

In February 2007, a CH-46 was shot down by an IR manpad in Iraq. In May 2007, the Commandant and LtGen Castellaw announced the decision to deploy the Osprey saw soon as it was ready.

The squadron subsequently deployed in late September/early October 2007. 

Now the Marines and the F-35 team have moved the playing field forward on working with the F-35 as a fleet. 

According to Lt. Col. David Berke:

Today (April 26, 2013), VMFAT-501 executed an 8 ship launch for Air to Air and Air to Ground training, completed hot refueling on all eight jets and launched them on a second mission.

Berke is the commander, VMFAT-501.

The ability to fly 16 sorties in three hours is a testament to the maintainers and the maturity of the program and one more step forward for the Warlords of 501, the Lockheed Martin team at Eglin and the F-35 program.

Berke knows something about flying and operations. Lieutenant Colonel Berke has been an F-18 pilot, an F-16 pilot, a TOPGUN instructor and served as ground Forward Air Controller supporting the US Army for a year. He gained his Viper experience in an F-16 flying aggressor tactics at TOPGUN; so you have a Marine Hornet Driver flying “foreign tactics” in a Navy training squadron in an AF Fighter. He was flying the Raptor and shaping tactics for the plane in its joint force role.

To remind our readers, hot refueling is a technique used by the Marines in operations to generate greater sortie rates for their aircraft able to operate close to the field of battle.

The Deputy Wing Commander, Col. Arthur Tomassetti, who is retiring after a distinguished career in the USMC in June added this important comment about the event:

The ability for VMFAT-501 to launch and recover 8 jets at the same time shows the increasing capability of the training center at Eglin and the continuing maturity of the F-35 program.

Colonel Arthur Tomassetti is the vice commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing, Air Education and Training Command, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The 33rd Fighter Wing serves as the home to the Joint Strike Fighter Integrated Training Center, providing pilot and maintenance training for nine international partners.

Col. Arthur Tomassetti has been an integral part of the development of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II and its prototype the X-35 since its inception.  Indeed, as a test pilot, he flew the first variant of the plane, which led to the F-35B.  We have had the opportunity to discuss the F-35 and its progress many times with the Colonel and will do so a final time while still in harness in June of this year.

Flying two divisions of F-35s in formation by USMC “Warlord Squadron” pilots is just the harbinger of thousands of F-35 Lightning II flying worldwide.

It is an early milestone and should be looked at as significant step in building true combat value by this latest addition to the Marine combat air fleet. It is now not just about the test community dictating flight profiles.

The F-35 is in the trusted hands of squadron pilots who will push the capabilities of the F-35 to currently unimagined limits of a 21st Century combat envelope. 

And this squadron pilot  process will carry forward a shift in the con-ops for the entire fleet and the MAGTF, and MAWTS and the Yuma air station are working this transformation right now and every day.  

Training and tactical innovation now rests at the Squadron level and unlike pontificating cubical commandos who actually have never flown the innovation creativity and destiny of the future of air combat is now in the pilot’s hands.

This is how it has been since World War I aerial combat.  Pilots create the tactics. Raul Lufbery a fighter ace with the Lafayette Escadrille is credited with a defense circle which was still used in Vietnam aerial combat. Lufbery was killed in action at age 33. Max Immelmann, a German WWI Ace who received the first Pour le Merite or “ Blue Max” for 20  kills lost his life in action at age 25. The “Immelmann” named after him was still in the USN/USMC F-4 TacManual when standing combat “Hot Pad” against Cuban Migs in 1972.

In this photo, the 8 planes involved in the training are shown. All the plane captains [crew chiefs] are seen standing by their jets. The pilots are in the cockpits. The jets are running. Credit Photo: by Lt Col “Steve” Gillette, F-35B IP and executive officer at the VMFAT-501 on April 26, 2013

Frank Luke, Congressional Medal of Honor,  was known as the “Arizona Balloon Buster. ”  Lt Luke over an 8-day period killed 14 Balloons and 4 aircraft, he was killed in action at age 21.

LtCdr Jimmy Thatch USN, Navy Cross, invented the “thatch weave” and motivated the “big blue blanket” against Kamikaze attacks. Major “Pappy” Boyington USMC was considered old—“Pappy” he had just turned thirty.

The future of US combat aviation has now passed to the junior Marine, Navy and Air Force fighter pilots. They will invent the tactics, they will commit their lives to furthering their professional skills and passing it on to the next generation, just like Lufbery, Immelmann, Luke, Thatch and Boyington.

It may be a simple two-division flight but it is just the beginning. 

Eventually, an F-35 will crash, the pilot may or may not survive and there will be a lot of press. For all the critics it will be a chance to attack. It will be written about by some with thinly disguised: “I told you so” malice. The testing bureaucrats by now have extensive files to castigate any reason for a crash and they will make their cubicle insights widely known.

But let the world know on a spring day off the Florida Gulf Coast eight USMC Squadron Pilots voted with their skill and trust to embrace the future because that is what combat aviators have been doing for almost a century. 

Additional Note: Although the most visible of developments, the Two Division F-35 operation has been accompanied by other developments at the Eglin training facility.  

According to Lt. Col. Berke:

This week two UK pilots flew two UK jets for their first UK national syllabus check — with the formation flying being part of that check.. The VMFAT-501 recently qualified the first STOVL instructor pilot who flew in STOVL mode at YUMA. The preparation for this was all by simulators and academics at Eglin and then executed at YUMA, which allows for STOVL mode. Eglin does not do this at this time.

The VMFAT-501 graduated their 20th F-35B student IP. The instructor pilots go to either YUMA or stay at Eglin. 

And finally, this week VMFAT-501 flew the 500th sortie thus far of this Fiscal Year. So we are now at 500+ sorties for the Warlords. 

For some recent F-35 fleet pieces see the following:

A Note on Hot Refueling:

We wrote on August 31, 2011:

During a recent exercise of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, the USMC honed their skills at landing Harriers on AM-2 matting, loading the aircraft with the pilot in the cockpit and ready to go after loading the aircraft with both weapons and fuel.  After getting “a bag of fuel” and weapons, the Harrier takes off and re-engages. This core competence of the USMC combines what a V/STOL aircraft can do with innovative combat operational approaches. The exercise and the operational practice with which it resonates have been explained by Lt. Col. Williams, the Commanding Officer of VMA-231.