The F-35B Coming to the MAGTF: “Turbo” Reflects on the Past and the Future of USMC Aviation


2013-06-27 In a series of articles, we have looked the career of “Turbo” Tomassetti and his sense of the evolution of the future of USMC aviation.

“Turbo” has been on the builders of the F-35 in the USMC in every sense of the word.  From being an X plane test pilot to one of the key officers involved in the build out of the Eglin training facility, “Turbo” has clearly left his imprint on the program and on the future of U.S. airpower.

In this interview, we provide an overview of his assessments of the past and the prospects for the future.

SLD: How does the F-35 impact on the expeditionary capabilities of the USMC?

Turbo: I think when you look at the F-35 airplane, you have to look at it in terms of what does that airplane bring to the battle space.

People want to measure airplanes with the standard sort of metrics of how fast does it go?  How well does it turn?  How many of this or that can it carry?

The F-35 goes beyond that. 

And when we talk about what it brings to the Marine air-ground taskforce, you have to look at what does that airplane in the battle space mean to that Marine on the ground with the rifle and the radio?  What does that airplane in the battle space mean to that Marine in the tank or in the armored vehicle?

It means that he or she has access to information they might not otherwise have because that F-35 is there.

It means they will have visibility into target sets and spheres of influence beyond the range of what they would normally have access to before.

And when we talk about the F-35B, we’re bringing that airplane up close to where the troops are because of its expeditionary nature.  Because it can go from amphibious ships, it can go from expeditionary airfields, troops will have access to that airplane, they have access to what that information that airplane brings to the table.

It will open up a whole new world of possibilities in the battle space.

What that brings to the Marine air-ground taskforce is a degree of insight into the battle space and ability to affect the battle space that we have not had before.

SLD: How would you contrast the options and capabilities you had at that time you started as an aviator with what a young Marine Corps aviator will have when he or she goes with the first F-35B squadron to Japan?

Turbo: When I started in Marine aviation, my first airplane was the Harrier. And I thought that airplane was the most high tech incredible airplane I had ever seen. It had a single screen in the cockpit; it was basically an analog airplane with a few digital enhancements. It had a heads up display; it had some interesting ways that you could designate a target on the ground and some automatic sort of weapons engagements things. It wasn’t purely manual aimed and manual deliver weapons as some other airplanes of the past were. It had a little bit of digital enhancement.

And there was information available to me as a pilot. I could get some information about what was going on inside my airplane. I had a limited bit of information of what was going on in the world around me.

And when I look now at what the F-35 brings to the table, it’s a completely digital airplane.  The analog world is in the past.  

And the amount of information that’s available to the pilot and the cockpit, it’s almost mind-boggling. From the touch screen display that sits in front of you with the ability to open14 windows of information you get about the aircraft, or about what’s going on in the battle space around you.

And the pilots have access to all of that. They have access to whatever their airplane is seeing and sensing around it. They have access to the other F-35s they’re flying with, the information that they’re seeing and sensing.  And all that information is available to the pilot.

I couldn’t even envision that amount of information, that amount of situational awareness of the battle space back in the days when I was flying the Harrier.

Everything was small then. The airplanes were close together. The area that we could see and sense and understand was small circle around the airplane.

Now, the airplanes are far apart. Now that area that they can see and sense is almost limitless considering that they can get information from off board platforms and beyond the horizon. 

It’s a whole new world of having situational awareness when you’re flying the airplane.

SLD: From the time you flew the X plane, which is now in the Smithsonian, to the reality of an F-35B, what’s the biggest difference concerning what you imagined and what you actually see on the flight line?

Turbo: We wanted to build an airplane that was easy to fly and an airplane that was easy to maintain. If you build an airplane that’s easy to fly, your accident rate comes down.  Your requirements for training come down.  And in the long-term life of an airplane, if you can reduce those two things, the cost of everything comes down.

And what we can do today with fly-by-wire technology digital flight controls is, again, it’s leaps and bounds over where we were 20 years ago when we first started with fly-by-wire airplanes.

Right now, we have an airplane that the pilot says I want to go here, I want to do this, and the computers make all that happen.  And the airplane goes where you want it to go.

And I think as much as we hoped for that, we all knew that that’s a hard thing to make happen. It sounds like a very simple concept; build an airplane that’s easy to fly, why don’t we do that all the time? Well, in practice, it’s very complicated because airplanes today are complicated machines.

And we demand a lot out of them in today’s environment. The fact that we’ve achieved that is great.

I had no concept of what this thing called sensor fusion was really going to mean when you sat in the cockpit. It’s a combination of what the sensors tell you, it’s a combination of how the information’s presented on the flat panel display in front of you, and a combination of what you see in your helmet mounted display.

It is all those systems working together. What you know as the pilot, now, compared to what I knew as a pilot in the prototype or what I knew as a pilot in any other airplane I’ve ever flow, again, it’s in a league all by itself.

And I will tell you, I think we have got the airplane to the point where you can start to really see how how all those systems will come together.

SLD: How hard has it been to change the mindset of the pilots now learning to fly and use the F-35?

Turbo: I think one of the interesting things in the beginning, with any new program, is that you start with pilots who have flown other airplanes. You transition experienced pilots into your new system.

And they all bring baggage with them, for lack of a better term. Everybody brings what they know from their legacy airplane. They’ve grown comfortable with whatever that is.

When you give them new capability and new technology, first you’ve got to figure out how to convince them to let go of the old, so that’s one step.  Then you’ve got to explain the new to them and what it means and what it can do for them.  Then you have to give them time to embrace that.

I think today we’re between that stage of letting go of the old and explaining the new. And we need to give it a little bit more time for folks to see all that in practice and then come to embrace that new technology and what it means and the capabilities that it gives them.

In this photo, the 8 planes involved in the first 8 ship formation flight at Eglin 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 Gillette, F-35B IP and executive officer at the VMFAT-501 

And that’s in talking about our transition pilots, the pilots who have flown other airplanes. And then, we will start to bring brand new pilots into the program here in the next couple of years.  Folks who are coming right from whatever their undergraduate jet might be. They’re going to be a little bit different, they’re not going to have those preconceived notions, they’re going to be happy just to have survived basic flight training and be in the F-35 training program.

But they’re also the generation that grew up with smart phones.They’re the generation that grew up with all the advanced video game technology that we have today. They grew up having the ability to assimilate lots of different information in graphic format in front of them and manipulate that information and be comfortable with it.

I think they’re going to be the first real indication of folks who can step right into embracing the new technologies and those new capabilities and what it can do for them. I’m excited to see those first youngsters get into the airplane that don’t have any preconceived notions, that don’t have any of that undoing of the old way of doing things that has to occur and see what they can do with the airplane.

I think we’re going to learn a lot more about what you can do with an F-35 when that generation of pilots hits the flight line.

SLD: Do you think a fleet concept is perhaps a good way to kind of capture to sharing your data aspect of the aircraft?

Turbo: I do. It’s too easy to just fall back to what you know when you want to talk about an airplane. You want to talk about, again, the basic performance parameters of speed and turn rate and those kinds of things.

With the F-35, you have to get to the next step. You can’t look at it as just a single airplane. 

And even if lots of different people are buying that same single airplane, they need to get past just the fact that hey, we can go the same speed and we can turn at the same rate.

And we may develop some similar tactics because of that. We now have to look at the fact that the airplanes can gather, collect and share information.

And they can share that information with any other F-35 out there and to some extent with just about anybody else out there. And you have that capability because you have the same platform, because you have that commonality.

That’s something we’re not used to having. It’s not just the fact that we can talk on the same radio frequency. We’re sharing information over data links. We’re sharing information collected from a variety of sensors that’s been processed already before it’s sent over to the rest of the people who are going to view it. The F-35 has that capability.

We will need to learn how to use that capability of a group of airplanes, regardless of where they launch from, regardless of whose insignia is painted on the outside. You need to harness the energy that that group of airplanes brings to the battle space.

SLD: A Navy pilot as deputy commander is replacing you. Doesn’t that represent the next phase in the program with the inclusion of the F-35C within the overall F-35 program?

Turbo: I represent the last of the initial folks who came to Eglin to get it started. The services did a great job of sending people here who were builders. Perhaps we were not the best at streamlining and making things efficient, so that’s what the new crowd’s going to do.

You need to take the place to the next level. And again, we’ve talked about and you need to stop talking about maturing and developing, and the initial stages and start talking about you’re a training organization responsible for making a quota of trained pilots and trained maintainers every year.

And you need to start thinking about this place in those terms.

My successor brings a wealth of experience as an initial F-14 guy, and then later, F-18 guy as a CAG.  He comes understanding what Naval aviation means. And I think his perspective here along with the new Air Force wing commander; I think that’s going to continue to help give the airplane the opportunity to sell itself.

Chart provided by “Turbo” Tomassetti providing his guidance to folks who follow in the F-35 program. 

SLD: As the plane progresses it will be increasingly capable of EW functions.  We would assume that you would add pilots with that sort of background to the program as well.

Turbo:  As you know they are already doing that at MAWTS, and we will do that here as well. And I don’t think it’s too early to start because what you want is those folks who understand that mission, the electronic attack mission from a completely different perspective than any Harrier or F-18 person might.  We need to be there at the ground floor as well because you want the initial foundation to be laid by people who know what they’re talking about.

I think we’re getting to that point with the block 2 airplanes where some of those capabilities are available. Even if it’s just available in the simulator for a few months before it’s out there on the flight line, those folks are starting to figure out how are we going to teach somebody electronic attack type capabilities in the simulator because it works in there in the beginning.

Who better to have than the folks who do that for a living doing the teaching?

SLD: As you look back, what are some of the lessons learned that you would pass on to your successors?

Turbo:  I ended my retirement speech to the Marines in 501 with the analogy I’ve used to describe this place and the effort here at Eglin.

I use the rock climbing analogy. For a long time, you can stand there and look at this big mountain peak in the distance. And that’s what was going on in an F-35 five, six, seven years ago. People were just sort of staring at this enormous thing in front of us.

At some point though, you got to put your hand on the mountain and start climbing. And you got to have the confidence and the skill to continue to move up. You got to have the cleverness to move sideways from time to time because that’s what it takes.  And you got to have the courage to move backwards on occasion because that’s what it takes to find the way to the top.

But the one thing you cannot do once you have started to climb, is you’ve got to have the commitment never to let go.

I left everybody with that message on numerous occasions and that’s how I close out my retirement speech. And I believe that describes where we are at today.

We’re on this mountain, we still got a ways to go to get to the top, anybody who has decided to climb just needs to hang on and use those skills to keep moving forward.

For some of the earlier discussions with “Turbo” see the following: