Four of the most experienced USMC F-35B pilots speak about their aircraft. And they say it’s exceptional.

VMX-1 F-35B pilot looking to the deck handlers for launch signal during "Proof of Concept" demonstration on the USS America (LHA-6) November 19, 2016.

The voice of the pilots is clear – the platform is working exceptionally. The F-35 is a platform with the ultimate level of sophistication, made simple. And therein lay the beauty of the F-35, and just why it will be so deadly, it’s simple.

The combined F-35 fleet now has over 75,000 flight hours, yet many continue to question the performance and value of the aircraft.  Much of this can be expected given early program challenges, and the reality that many of the F-35s capabilities are classified.  Add that many do not grasp the war the F-35 was designed to deter – or fight.  21st century warfare and capability has about as much in common with wars of the past as your 1970’s land line has to your smartphone.  It is in this “smartphone” battlespace that the F-35 is designed to fight and to do so with a distinctly unfair advantage.

To understand the significance and value of the F-35, cut through the complexity and noise.  Simplify.  Put aside the politicians “it does not work!” the ideologues, the self-proclaimed experts and listen to the voice of the pilots.  The pilots will take the aircraft into combat, their own lives in the balance as they penetrate contested space and are wildly outnumbered by adversary aircraft.

The USS America (LHA-6) with 12 F-35Bs on board (2 in Hangar) during "Proof of Concept" demonstration November 19, 2016.  Aircraft from VMFA-211, VX-23 and VMX-1 particpated with MV-22Bs and an AH-1Z & UH-1Y in a "strike exercise" off the coast of CA.
The USS America (LHA-6) with 12 F-35Bs on board (2 in Hangar) during “Proof of Concept” demonstration November 19, 2016. Aircraft from VMFA-211, VX-23 and VMX-1 particpated with MV-22Bs and an AH-1Z & UH-1Y in a “strike exercise” off the coast of CA.

The Aviationist and a handful of journalists recently had the opportunity to visit with four such pilots during a “Proof of Concept” demonstration on the USS America, Nov. 19, 2016.  The four pilots are some of the most experienced F-35B pilots in the United States Marine Corps (USMC) and their previous experience provides valuable context to their statements.

  • George “Sack” Rowell, Commanding Officer (CO) of VMX-1 (Marine Operational Test & Evaluation Squadron). Prior to the F-35, Rowell spent appx. 3000 hours over 18 years of flying the F/A-18 Hornet.  Previously the CO of VMFA(AW)-533
  • Col. Chad “Mo” Vaughn, CO of VMFA-211. Prior to the F-35, Vaughn spent a couple 1000 hrs over 13 years in the F/A-18A-D Hornet, as well as time in the F-16A-B Fighting Falcon/Viper and F/A-18 Super Hornet at NAS Fallon.
  • Col. Rich “BC” Rusnok, slated to become the CO of VMFA-121 in March 2017. Prior to the F-35, Price spent appx. 7 years flying the AV-8B Harrier II with additional time in the F/A-18 Hornet.
  • Col. John “Guts” Price, slated CO for VFMA-122 (2018). Prior to the F-35, Price spent appx. 1200 hrs and 10 years flying the AV-8B Harrier II, and has about 400 hrs in the F-35 over the past 3 years.

The pilots provide unique insights, a different perspective on the F-35 and its unique capabilities.  The comments have been edited for readability with best efforts made to maintain context and integrity of intent.

F-35B launchs off the USS America (LHA-6) during "Proof of Concept" demonstration November 19, 2016.
F-35B launchs off the USS America (LHA-6) during “Proof of Concept” demonstration November 19, 2016.

On a personal level as pilots, coming from other platforms and stepping into the F-35, do you have an “aha” moment that you can share?

Guts;  My first “aha” moment was a seemingly simple thing.  I was executing a familiarization flight near MCAS Yuma.  I was coming back to the airfield and I basically just turned the jet and pointed its nose at Yuma.  Immediately the jet is providing me the information of all the traffic that is out there in the airspace.  When I talk to approach for the first time they are telling me about the traffic that is out there that I already know about and I see it.  I can tell who everybody is that he is talking about and the jet also saw traffic that ATC hadn’t seen yet and I asked about it.  And I thought, “Holy Cow!” here I am coming back to the field from a simple familiarity mission and my jet is telling me everything about the operational environment I am about to go into.  In this case, something very simple, the traffic pattern coming back there, but I didn’t have to do anything to have that level of SA [Situational Awareness].  I can start making decisions about what altitude I wanted to go to, if I wanted to turn left or right, speed up or slow down.  There’s somebody coming up next to me, I want to get in front of them – or whatever.  It is a very simple example, but I thought WOW this is amazing that I see everything and can do that.

The other was the first time I vertically recovered the airplane.  The flight control law that the airplane has is unbelievable and I always tell the anecdote.  Flying AV-8B Harrier IIs, I only had one specific aircraft I felt like I could kind of go easy on the controls and it would sit there and hover.  I love the Harrier, love flying that aircraft, but there was work involved to bring it back for a vertical landing.  The very first time I hovered an F-35B I thought, I am the problem here, and I am just going to let the jet do what it wants to do.  The F-35 was hovering better than I could ever hover a Harrier without doing a thing.  That’s back to that workload comment I said earlier.  I am performing a vertical landing, and I have the time to look around and see what is taking place on the pad and around me. It is a testament to the jet.

BC;  I was conducting a strike mission and Red Air was coming at me.  In a 4th Gen fighter you must do a whole lot of interpretation.  You see things in azimuth, and you see things in elevation.  In the F-35 you just see the God’s eye view of the whole world.  It’s very much like you are watching the briefing in real time. 

I am coming in to perform the simulated weapons release, and Red Air is coming the other direction.  I have enough situational awareness to assess whether Red Air is going to be a factor to me by the time I release the weapon.  I can make the decision, I’m going to go to the target, I’m going to release this weapon.  Simultaneously I pre-target the threat, and as soon as I release the A2G weapon, I can flip a switch with my thumb and shoot the Red Air.  This is difficult to do in a 4th Gen fighter, because there is so much manipulation of systems in the cockpit.  All while paying attention to the basic mechanics of flying the airplane and interpreting threat warnings that are often very vague, or only directional.  In the F-35 I know where the threats are, what they are and I can thread the needle.  I can tell that the adversary is out in front of me and I can make a very, very smart decision about whether to continue or get out of there.  All that, and I can very easily switch between mission sets.

Mo;  I was leading a four ship of F-35s on a strike against 4th Gen adversaries, F-16s and F/A-18s.  We fought our way in, we mapped the target, found the target, dropped JDAMs on the target and turned around and fought our way out.  All the targets got hit, nobody got detected, and all the adversaries died.  I thought, yes, this works, very, very, very well.  Never detected, nobody had any idea we were out there.

A second moment was just this past Thursday.  I spent a fair amount of my life as a tail hook guy – [landing F/A-18s on US Navy Supercarriers] on long carrier deployments.  The last 18 seconds of a Carrier landing are intense. The last 18 seconds of making a vertical landing on this much smaller USMC Assault Carrier – is a lot more relaxed.  The F-35C is doing some great stuff.  Making a vertical landing [my first this week] on the moving ship, that is much smaller than anything I’ve landed on at sea – with less stress, was awesome.

Sack;  It was my first flight at Edwards AFB Jan ’16.  I got in the airplane and started it up.  I was still on the deck and there were apparently other F-35s airborne – I believe USAF, I was not aware.  I was a single ship, just supposed to go out and get familiar flying the aircraft.  As the displays came alive there were track files and the SA as to what everyone else was doing in the airspace, and I was still on the ground.  I mean, I hadn’t even gotten my take-off clearance yet.  I didn’t even know where it was coming from.  It was coming from another F-35.  The jet had started all the systems for me and the SA was there.  That was a very eye opening moment for me.

The second one, took place when I came back from that flight.  In a Hornet you would pull into the line and had a very methodical way in which you have to shut off the airplane and the systems otherwise you could damage something.  So you have to follow a sequence, it is very methodical about which electronic system you shut off.  In the F-35 you come back, you do a couple things then you just shut the engine off, and it does everything else for you.  Sounds simple, even silly – but it is a quantum shift.

F-35Bs stacked aboard the USS America (LHA-6) during "Proof of Concept" demonstration November 19, 2016. A total of 12 F-35Bs aboard.
F-35Bs stacked aboard the USS America (LHA-6) during “Proof of Concept” demonstration November 19, 2016. A total of 12 F-35Bs aboard.

The voice of the pilots is clear – the platform is working exceptionally. The F-35 is a platform with the ultimate level of sophistication, made simple.   And therein lay the beauty of the F-35, and just why it will be so deadly, it’s simple.

This article is but a small excerpt of the complete pilots discussion of our contributors full article found at The Second Line of Defense here.

The Aviationist thanks USMC pilots; Col. George “Sack” Rowell, Lt. Col. Chad “Mo” Vaughn, Lt. Col. Rich “BC” Rusnok, and Lt. Col.  John “Guts” Price; Captain Joseph R. Olson, Commanding Officer of the USS America and entire crew; Sylvia Pierson, Brandi Schiff, JSF/JPO PA; Capt. Sarah Burns and 1st Lt. Maida Zheng, USMC PAOs;  MV-22B pilots/crew and personnel of VMX-1.

Touchdown imminent during "Proof of Concept" demonstration on the USS America (LHA-6) November 19, 2016.
Touchdown imminent during “Proof of Concept” demonstration on the USS America (LHA-6) November 19, 2016.



  1. “As the displays came alive there were track files and the SA as to
    what everyone else was doing in the airspace, and I was still on the
    ground. I mean, I hadn’t even gotten my take-off clearance yet. I
    didn’t even know where it was coming from. It was coming from another
    F-35. ”

    Okay, that’s pretty cool.

    • That’s an example of how networked the F-35 is. It will be completely networked with the targeting data from every sensor in the battle space, that alone gives the average F-35 pilot far more Situational Awareness (SA) than any other pilots flying. Then there’s the helmet. The helmet has many technologies and capabilities that are kept top secret but rumors in the industry claim that the pilot can manipulate many of the weapon and sensor systems through eye movements. It is true the F-35 is not as maneuverable in a dogfight as aircraft designed to be pure fighters but it still has two major advantages if it finds itself in a close-in dogfight, one is thrust to weight ratio meaning the F-35 pilot will usually enjoy an energy advantage against most opponents and, again this rumored, the F-35 has thousands of micro-cameras imbedded in its skin, these cameras are linked to the helmet and allow the F-35 pilot to never lose eyesight on his opponent, not even if the enemy flies under the F-35 where the structure would block the view, but because of the camera/helmet system the F-35 pilots view is not blocked he can literally see through his aircraft’s structure and keep his eyes on the enemy target. In a close in twisting turning dogfight keeping your eyes on the enemy is one of the most important aspects of the fight and usually determines who wins, there is an old saying amongst fighter pilots that’s been prevalent since the Great War, it goes like this: “Lose the sight, lose the fight”.

    • Which all sounds wonderful until we hear this from the DOT&E:

      Test pilots have reported their F-35s are creating false multiple tracks when all of their sensors are turned on. For example, when a radar and an infrared sensor detects the same enemy plane, the two sensors display it on the helmet-mounted sight as two enemy planes. The same thing happens when two or more sensors detect the same ground target.

      Test pilots have worked around this problem by turning off all but one of their sensors to eliminate the multiple tracks. DOT&E says this is “unacceptable for combat and violates the basic principle of fusing contributions from multiple sensors into an accurate track and clear display to gain situational awareness and to identify and engage enemy tracks.”

      It is bad enough that each individual F-35 computer struggles to create a clear picture of what is going on in the battlespace for the pilot. But the false target problem is compounded when multiple F-35s try to share data through what is called the Multi-Aircraft Data Link.

      What has been described as one of the F-35’s greatest advantages has yet to live up to expectations—and, to the contrary, has been increasing the pilot’s workload.

      • Cocidius, you just got owned by other posters who know much more than you. Nice try posting poor material. Relying on really old DOT&E reports which are a day late and a dollar short at the best of times or just shitty material. Cat got your tongue?

        I see that you are a fan of the Gripen aka F*cken aka hopped up F5 wannabe…… two can play the same game. Ahh the Gripen/F*cken……pissed on by Swiss voters……used in Mickey Mouse missions over Libya…….the only fighter where your G Suit ejects you instantly (wee!)……crashed twice because SAAB can’t sort out the FBW system like a Swedish Sauna.

        How is the vapourware F*cken E/NG going? Has it even flown or done anything useful yet!!?? And good luck with the F*cken E/NG sensor fusion working perfectly straight out of the gate! Perhaps SAAB can play us more trance/dance music and show random happy Scandinavian models to distract us from the fact that they are still fumbling a product that is suppose to only be an evolution of the F*cken C/D.

        As SAAB says…..We are F*cken pilots (oh cr*p, we are f*cked)

  2. when was the last time pilots ~penetrated contested space and were wildly outnumbered~
    It makes sense to develop a good aircraft that can deal with a less than ideal environment. however there usually is a price to pay and perfection is enemy of good enough.

  3. *sits around and waits for comments like these to show up*

    “But but according to the “Dr”. Gilmore, the DOT&E keeps making “reports” that the aircraft and many of its systems are sub-par. He even went on to say that even at block 3F the F-35 still wont be up to full functionality…”

    “According to a flight test report a F-35 lost to an F-16 in a dogfight”

    “Russian and Chinese weapons, systems, and platforms blah blah blah”

    “Stealth doesn’t work, look at ONE F-117”

    “Its too expensive and behind schedule”

    To those people all I have to say is this, “humble pie will be ready in a few minutes”

    • Such an utterly freaking awesome post that is absolutely right on target. I’d add a few more examples of classic ignorant BS that immediately proclaim the author is a blogchair warrior or retired grunt with no experience calling for CAS within the last 10years–like comments about how there’s no brrrrt, or it’s too slow, or it can’t perform CAS, or the “inventor” of the F-16 sez, or the hook/cooling system/gun/helmet doesn’t work, or it’s one (or more) of the follow codewords: turkey, junk, garbage, lemon, boondoggle, turd, crap, or POS.

    • I love it. The people who are all jacked up over that report are too young to know the safety record of the F-16 between 1980 and 1989: 107 jets lost and 39 pilots dead. The F-35 has been around that long, have we seen anything like that? Also during the ’80s, Lockheed and the US government were spending millions and millions and millions on fixing design problems. The number of TCTOs (time-compliance tech orders) filled volumes. The F-35 had 7 major issues listed in the DOT&E report at F-35’s IOC (Initial Operating Capability). That would’ve been an absolute dream for the F-16, it had over a hundred.

      If the never-F-35-ers were running things back in 1978, the F-16 would’ve been killed before there was a fleet size of 20. There was no internet back then and whining via snail-mail letter-to-the-editor is not nearly as fun.

  4. Ugly as the F-35 is, I appreciate that its pilots say it is easy to fly and they like to fly it. It’s usefulness to the country will be measured by its ability to avoid all attempts by Integrated Anti-aircraft Defense Systems to destroy it on its way to its target. And that, of course, remains to be seen.

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