6/26/13 During a visit to the 33rd Fighter Wing, an exit interview with Col. “Turbo” Tomassetti provided a unique opportunity to look back on the career of “Turbo” and the way ahead for the F-35B within USMC aviation.
A key part of the interview was provided by an exchange between “Turbo” and “Easy” Ed Timperlake, a former USMC aviator and reserve squadron commanding officer.
The exchange provided a good chance for non-pilots to understand the key role which the exchanges in the ready room play in shaping the evolution of combat training, approaches and capabilities for an air combat force.
“Easy”: The “right stuff” is the best way to understand how it feels when you start in the ready room and then move forward in your aviation career. Could you take us back to your experience when you started? What did it feel like to enter your first ready room and begin your career?
“Turbo: I’ve had a lot of time to reflect here in the past few weeks on things.
I remember when I got to Harrier training. What they would try to do is to get everybody in the backseat of one of the two-seat Harriers just for an exposure ride or two before starting the class.
And I remember getting the opportunity to get in the back of the Harrier on a flight, and it was a four-ship training flight, and I don’t remember specifically the mission of the day. But just sitting in the cockpit, coming out of the TA4 as my sort of last airplane experience a few months prior, sitting in the cockpit and seeing an electroninc display screen, and a heads up display (HUD) in there. I thought I was in the most high-tech thing I had ever seen in my life.
And when I had that first sensation of getting pressed back in the seat on a short takeoff, it was like wow, this is incredible. I’ve seen these airplanes at air shows as a kid, and that’s sort of why I put it down as my choice to go fly.
But an interesting anecdote, the RF4 was my first choice But the class before me was the last class they assigned anybody to the RF4 in because they knew it was timing out. Harrier was my second choice, so I ended up heading to Cherry Point.
The ready rooms were big because there were lots of different folks in lots of different phases. But there at Harrier training, there were only about three classes in session at any given time, given the length of the course.
And you were in with a small group of folks. And chances are, you were going to end up in the same squadron as at least one of those other folks.
I was fortunate that three guys out of my Harrier training class went to the same squadron because that was where the need was.
You started to get a sense of that camaraderie and a sense of what it meant to sit there on a Friday afternoon before going over to the officer’s club or whatever the deal of the day was and talk airplane stuff with bubbas who had the sort of same goals and mindset that you have. That is where it started and I vividly remember those moments.
“Easy”: “With the second tour, sitting in the ready room, and discussing flying the airplane, you understand the airplane better, and you’re learning from squadron mates who may have been exposed to a different set of experiences in his or her career path — at the ’03, ’04 level– You guys must have seen that a lot in the Harrier community.
“Turbo”: I got about six months extra time with the squadron than most people normally got just because I was waiting on a school seat for the summer. . I got 1,000 hours in that first tour, which was virtually unheard of in the Harrier community.
With the squadron I went to a six-month deployment to West Pac, three months to Canada in Cold Lake, nine months to Desert Shield, Desert Storm. And for that whole three and a half years I was with the same guys. Our squadron came back from West Pac, turned right around and went to Desert Shield.
In other words, in the summer that we should’ve been doing the big turnover of people, it never happened because we preserved everybody in the squadron to go to war.
So I remained in the junior group of pilots in that squadron for my entire tour because nobody new came in until the very end there when we got back from Desert Storm.
But I remember very well being challenged and starting to get a sense of where I stood in the realms of aviators in that first tour. It was mostly all about me. And again, I was finding out how good I was or wasn’t; I was finding out what my limits were with what I could do with that particular airplane. And so largely, I was finding out what the limits of that airplane were and what my limits were.
We were a band of brothers, we did all this stuff together, and we had an incredible level of team that you don’t come across very often.
The second tour, I think, because you feel you come back in now as a trainer, a leader, and there are folks younger than you, you start to get a glimpse of the bigger picture.
You start to have more responsibilities outside you and your airplane.
And you start to figure out what where you fit in the grand scheme of this thing called the MAGTF.
With my second tour is where that sort of ah-ha moment occurred that I realized that it wasn’t just about me and what I could do in my airplane, there was something bigger out there within which I fit.
“Easy”: Col. could you look back from that experience to your latest one as preparing the pilots for the F-35? Could you compare and contrast your experience with what you are seeing with the new F-35 pilots?
“Turbo”: I think one of the interesting things right now that is a little bit different than anything else that I encountered along the way is the mix of pilots in the ready room here at 501.
When I entered the Harrier community, we were still merging the A4 community into the Harrier community, so in my training class for Harriers, there were three transition A4 pilots, and three new guys.
There was a blend going on of older transition pilots and new pilots being injected into the system. But they were all basically attack pilots coming from very similar backgrounds.
For new guys like me, we didn’t have a philosophy yet, but we understood the difference between fighter and attack, since you had to make a distinction back then.
But now I sit in the ready room at 501 and simple things stand out.
Everybody’s left shoulder has either a MAWTS patch or a Test Pilot School patch or both. There isn’t a squadron in the Marine Corps, outside of MAWTS itself where everybody’s wearing a MAWTS patch.
The next observation I would make is that you’ve got an even blend of Harrier pilots and F-18 pilots. And you’ve got the different sort of nuances of F-18 pilots. You got single-seat and two-seat pilots, and you’ve got boat deck pilots and shore-based pilots.
We have a confluence of all of these different ways of thinking about an airplane and what it means to fly that airplane and be part of operations.
This means that there are a lot of good ideas out there, and there is a lot of baggage out there; and that all comes together in the ready room.
It’s interesting to watch when something not clear-cut. They have a standardization board and they want to discuss some particular way to train and maneuver or a particular way we should be doing something with the airplane. And there’s no clear-cut answer. It didn’t come handed to us in a flight manual; the test guys didn’t already develop the way to do it. It’s up to the squadron to decide what to do.
And I’ll tell you, there are some interesting and heated discussions between all of the different types of pilots that are sitting in the ready room. And that is a good thing.
I think that uniqueness is going to set us off on a footing with this airplane that perhaps the V22 had a similar sort of start. The fact that we started flying here over a year now at Eglin, we are introducing the operational F-35. And the fact that the pilots in the 501 ready room are putting their fingerprints on everybody who is going to fly it, at least for the next several years, They own the training for F-35,, They are going to set the foundation.
Obviously, at some point in the future, things will normalize and you won’t see all those patches sitting in the flight ready room together.
I don’t know that we could’ve done the beginning of this airplane any better in terms of the people and how it is getting introduced and how the airplane is meeting the pilots.
“Easy”: I couldn’t agree with you more. I lost a very close Academy Classmate to the AV-8, Tom Tyler. Obviously, the F-35B flies much easier than the Harrier, which is a major step forward. With a serious improvement in the ability to fly the aircraft, and that will allow the pilots to deal with the other capabilities of the aircraft more effectively. What is your take on this evolution?
“Turbo”: I think there’s sort of three distinct phases we’re going to go through, the way the program’s set up in the beginning. You’re going to have the phase where we have all these transition pilots coming from other platforms who come with baggage. And we got to convince them to let go of that.
And then, in the next phase you will have to expose to them and explain to them the new thing, then new capability. And finally, you have to give them time to embrace the new thing. So, I think that’s what’s going to happen.
And right now, we’re sort of in between phase one and two. We’re sort of getting people to let go of whatever they came with. Not let go of everything because there’s a lot of best practices out there we do want to harvest, but you haveto reopen your mind to new possibilities when you come to this airplane.
And we’ll do a good job here of doing that with the systems we have and the training system that’s in place. We will be able to explain what the new thing is. That’s in the classroom, that’s in the simulator, that’s in the sidebar discussions in the ready room, all of that.
The fact that I have been successful in convincing the Marine Corps to inject a few developmental test pilots in here, who had finished their DT tour, so that we didn’t sort of lose all that experience and expertise. So that now you’ve got folks in the ready room who can give you the sort of background on things and why they are the way they are, and how they’re going to get better.
We’re going to start with what we left off with in our other airplanes. We’re going to start with training a person with a number of flights and in the way we did it in the Harrier and Hornet because people need to press the I believe button on this new system, and you have to give them time to get there. You have to let the airplane sell itself
And it will. I mean, the V22 sold itself out of all of its demons of the past. It wasn’t because somebody said something in some newsprint article, it wasn’t because somebody said something in a meeting. The airplane sold itself based on its performance.
And the F-35 is going to do the same thing. It just needs to have the opportunity to do that.
I think we’re going to find that pilots are going to get out there and they’re going to see that hey, this syllabus says you got to do 20 landings in the first three weeks in order to get your mastery of this. And by the third landing, guys are going to go okay, that was a perfect landing. I don’t know really why we’re going to continue to practice this for 17 more tries.
I think we’re going to have to let it evolve over time, but I do believe that we are going to get to that point where we’re going to look at this airplane as its own unique entity, and start training to what it allows us to do.
The goal — I know why the Marine Corps wanted an expeditionary airplane, I get it because I grew up in that environment, but I will tell you, the sort of personal stamp that I have tried to put on this thing since I joined the program in 1998 is I wanted a STOVL airplane that could do all the things that the Marine Corps needed, but was easy to fly.
Because like you said, I went to three memorial services in my first year in the fleet. And that was painful, and that hurt because I knew those guys and I lived with those guys.
There were some shortfalls of the airplane, there were some shortfalls in our training, and again, it was airplane that really demanded that you were on your toes every single minute you were in the cockpit.
And we’re smarter than that now; we’re better than that now. A little bit because computers are better than they used to be and what we can do with computers and airplanes are better.
But the whole point of building this particular STOVL airplane, From my view and the other Harrier pilots in the developmental phase was to make it easy to fly. We knew what the price that the people who flew that airplane paid, and we didn’t want to see that repeated.
Simple things like hey, the airplane won’t let you decel to the hover if you’re too heavy. A simple safety feature like that, might have saved people in the Harrier
And the fact that we’re smart enough now to figure out how to incorporate that into an airplane and make it work and the fact that I have a STOVL airplane that I don’t need three hands to fly like I did in the Harrier.
I got an airplane that you tell I want to go up; I want to go down, I want to go forward, I want to go back, and it says I got it. I’ll figure out what to do with all of those things that can maneuver and wiggle. And you just tell it what you want it to do.
I think we need to give the airplane time to sell itself, and we need to give the folks a chance to digest what that means, and then go back and take another look at how we train people to fly it and realize that we’re going to spend 90 percent of our time talking about tactical capability of the airplane and about 10 percent talking about takeoff and landing.
The bio of Col. Tomassetti follows but directly below are descriptions of the photos seen above in the slideshow, which show moments in his career.
- The first photo is from 1986 at the time of his graduation from USMC Officers Basic School.
- The second and third photos are from 1987 and 1988 during flight training.
- The fourth photo shows some young gun Harrier pilots from 1990.
- The fifth photo is from 1996 and is after his engagement in the Gulf wars.
- The sixth, seventh and eighth photos are from the X-35 period, and shot in 2000.
- The ninth photo is from 2001 and reflects the “no runway, no problem” attitude of the Harrier community.
- The tenth photo shows three legends at once.
- The final photo shows “Turbo” in front of his F-35.
Colonel Arthur Tomassetti retired for his last position which was 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.
Colonel Tomassetti earned his commission from the United States Navy Reserve Officer Training Corp in 1986. He completed flight training in Beeville, Texas and Pensacola, Fla. He became a pilot and trained in the AV-8B Harrier in Cherry Point, N. C. He’s served with two Fleet Harrier Squadrons VMA-542 and VMA-513.
Colonel Tomassetti served as a member of the Joint Strike Fighter Test Force and became the lead government pilot for the X-35 Test Team. He was the only U.S. Government pilot to fly all three variants of the X-35 aircraft and flew the first ever Short Take-Off, level supersonic dash and vertical landing accomplished on a single flight.
Colonel Tomassetti was a designated USMC Acquisition Professional Officer holding Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act (DAWIA) level 3 certifications in Test and Evaluation and Program Management
He was a command pilot with more than 3,200 hours in 35 different aircraft.
- 1986 Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering, Northwestern University, Ill. 1986 USMC Officers Basic School, Va.
- 1988 USMC AV-8B Flight Training, Cherry Point, N.C.
- 1992 USMC Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course, MAWTS-1, Ariz.
- 1993 USMC Expeditionary Warfare School, Marine Corps University, Va.
- 1997 United States Naval Test Pilot School, Patuxent River, Md.
- 2001 Master of Science degree in Aviation System, University of Tennessee, Tenn.
- 2002 USMC Command and Staff College, Marine Corps University, Va
- Jan 1987-Aug 1989 Flight Training Student Fla., Texas, N.C.
- Sept 1989 – June 1991 Flight Officer VMA-542, Cherry Point. N.C.
- June 1991- Jan 1992 Director Safety and Standardization VMA-542, Cherry Point., N.C.
- July 1992-June 1993 Weapons and Tactics Instructor, VMA-542, Cherry Point, N.C.
- July 1993- June 1994 Student Expeditionary Warfare School, Quantico, Va.
- June 1994- Oct 1994 Asst Operations Officer, USMC Officers Candidate School, Quantico, Va.
- Oct 1994 – Dec 1995 Weapons and Tactics Instructor, VMA-513 Yuma, Ariz.
- Dec 1995- Dec 1996 Operations Officer VMA-513, Yuma, Ariz.
- Dec 1997- Dec 1997 Test Pilot under instruction, Patuxent River, Md.
- Jan 1998-Aug 2001 Test Pilot Joint Strike Fighter Program, VX-23, Md.
- June 2002 – June 2004, USMC JSF Program Integrator, Lockheed Martin, Fort Worth, Texas.
- June 2004 – Dec 2005, Chief Test Pilot, VX-23, Patuxent River, Md.
- Dec 2005 – June 2007, Commanding Officer, VX-23, Patuxent River, Md.
- Jun 2007- July 2009, Commanding Officer, Marine Aviation Detachment, Patuxent River, Md.
- October 2009 – present, Vice Commander, 33rd Fighter Wing, Eglin AFB, Fla.
- Rating: Command Pilot Flight Hours: More than 3,200
- Aircraft Flown: T-34C, T-2C, TA-4, AV-8B, T-38, F-16, F/A-18A-F, VAAC Harrier, EA-6B, Lear 24, T-45, X-35A/B/C, Tornado GR1, F-4G, F-15, T-7, MIG-21, U-21F, P-3C, NU-1B, U-6A, AT-6, C-12A, DHC2, KC-130J, B-25, TH-6B, OH-58, Gazelle
AWARDS AND DECORATION
- Legion of Merit Defense Meritorious Service Medal with one oak leaf cluster Air Medal with numeral 3 and “V” device Meritorious Service Medal
- Navy Commendation Medal with Gold Star
- Navy Achievement Medal
EFFECTIVE DATES OF PROMOTION
- Second Lieutenant 13 June 1986
- First Lieutenant 7 April 1988 Captain 1 November 1990 Major 1 August 1996 Lieutenant Colonel 1 April 2002 Colonel 1 August 2007
Editor’s Note: The subtitle of this article could be “Cubical Commandos Need Not Apply to Become USMC Aviators”