The F-35B’s “Elephant Walk” was part of a readiness exercise.
On May 1, 2019, Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT) 501 conducted a readiness exercise with of 20 F-35B Lightning II aircraft aboard Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina.
“The safe launch and recovery of the aircraft, affirms the squadron’s commitment to achieving and sustaining the highest level of readiness in order to train the next generation of F-35B pilots from the U.S. Marine Corps and partner nations,” said the USMC in a photo caption to the mass drills.
During Elephant Walk exercises military aircraft (usually fully armed – but in the case of the F-35, the aircraft might carry some air-to-air missiles and bombs inside the weapons bays) taxi in close formation or in sequence right before a minimum interval takeoff and, depending on the purpose of the training event they then either take off or taxi back to the apron.
The first such drills involving an F-35 of any variant took place in November 2018 at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, but this was the first time the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant of the Lightning II took part in an “Elephant Walk”.
VMAT 501 is a training squadron reportedly equipped with 20 F-35B Lightning II aircraft and serves as the Fleet Replacement Squadron. Known as the “Warlords,” the squadron is based at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina since 2014, and falls administratively under Marine Aircraft Group 31 and the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing. If the number of aircraft assigned to the unit is confirmed, it means that all the F-35s assigned to the “Warlords” took part in the readiness drills.
Noteworthy, the photos released by the U.S. Marine Corps show that also the first Italian Navy F-35B and a British Lightning took part in the Elephant Walk.
The readiness exercise comes as the three U.S. services flying the F-35A/B/C variants are struggling to achieve acceptable availability rates across the Lightning II fleet. In October 2018, Secretary of Defense James Mattis ordered the services to ensure that 80 percent of all F-35s, as well as other types of tactical jets, are FMC (Fully Mission Capable) at any time by the end of this year. By the way, only 27% of F-35 fighters worldwide were full mission capable between May and November 2018, according to a study conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), reported by Flight Global. Some 52% of the stealth fighters were mission capable – able to perform at least one mission – over the same period, the same study said.
So, these Elephant Walks can also be seen as a way to show progress improving the readiness of F-35 units, in a period of renewed critics and following the recent crash of a Japanese F-35.
Anyway, dealing with the USMC, on Sept. 27, 2018, Marines F-35B jets with U.S. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211, the “Wake Island Avengers”, of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, carried out their first air strike in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province launching from U.S. Navy Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD-2) on station in the Persian Gulf, the aircraft also carried RCS enhancers and the externally mounted GAU-22 25mm gun pod in addition to the weapons in the internal bays.