Exclusive Interview With USMC’s New West Coast F-35B Demo Pilot

F-35 demo
Close-up view of the F-35B and Brembo (image credit: Steven Welch)

West Coast F-35B Demonstration Team Debuts New Demo Pilot At Yuma Airshow 2024.

With the North America 2024 airshow season kicking off in full effect early March, the Marine Corps Air Station Yuma airshow, located in Yuma, Arizona, is certainly one of the most eagerly awaited events on the schedule.

The range of performers at this show was varied and compelling. One crowd favorite kicking off the show was the USMC MAGTF Demo consisting of the AH-1Z Viper Attack Helicopter, F/A-18C Hornet, UH-1Y Venom Helicopter, KC-130J aerial refueling tanker and the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, all coordinated together demonstrating the Marines ability to deliver a rapid and powerful response.  Another example was the tightly orchestrated USMC F-5N 4-ship flyby, which executed multiple passes over the airfield.  Additionally, the US Air Force weighed in with a powerful demo of the F-22 Raptor as well as a heritage flight join-up with a P-38 Lightning.

Brembo pulling away from show center prior to engaging the afterburner. (Author)

Given that this show was at MCAS Yuma the crowd were clearly anticipating a robust and muscular Marine Corps Aviation finale, and as this reporter witnessed, it was most definitely delivered by the solo performance of the USMC F-35B demonstration team.  Flying in this year’s demo is F-35B Instructor Pilot, Major Craig Brembo Norris of Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 502, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, San Diego, California.

We at The Aviationist were thrilled and honored to be able to sit down with Brembo and provide you this exclusive interview with the United States Marine Corps new West Coast F-35B demonstration pilot.

Major Craig Brembo Norris of VMFAT 502 in the cockpit of his F-35B Lightning II (Image credit: Andrew Sanchez)

The Aviationist: Please tell us a little about yourself, where did you grow up, where did you go to school, and how did this lead to an interest in aviation and ultimately a career in aviation with the Marine Corps?

Brembo:  I grew up in Naples, Florida. One of four boys, with my father, Greg, being a former Navy Pilot. My younger brother, Curt, is also a fighter pilot, flying the F/A-18 Hornet over at VMFA-323 in Miramar. Executing flight operations at the same base with my little brother has been truly special. Last year, we had the unique opportunity to dog fight each other, executing Dissimilar Air Combat Training over the mountains in California. Surreal day for the both of us, due to our close relationship and passion for aviation growing up. Still remember calling ‘two for takeoff’, and being blown away by the experience and the opportunity to go head to head against him in the WVR (Within Visual Range) arena. Certainly, a sortie that our mother required a ‘safe on deck’ phone call afterwards.

I attended Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. Former walk-on football player for App. State, thriving in a competitive athletic environment, an itch I get to scratch daily with some of the sharpest, most competitive fighter pilots in the world.

Major Craig Brembo Norris banking towards the crowd line flying the demo in a local MCAS Yuma F-35B from VMFA-211, The Wake Island Avengers. (Author)

Please elaborate on your path towards specifically flying the F-35B.  Did you fly any other front-line fighters such as the Harrier or go straight from flight school to the F-35? Can you provide us total hours in the F-35B, plus any other front line fighter time?  One curiosity question: do or did you ever cross train and fly the A or C model F-35?

I was a ‘Lightning Baby’ with my first frontline operational aircraft being the F-35B. I currently have around 850 hours in the F-35B. I have not cross trained on the A or C model, but routinely execute operations with both variants, as the F-35 community thrives on our ability to execute joint operations with both US and Partner Nations.

What F-35 squadrons did you fly with prior to your assignment with VMFAT-502?

I did my initial training with VMFAT-501 in Beaufort, SC. Following my designation as a qualified F-35B pilot, I checked in to the VMFA-211 ‘Wake Island Avengers’. During my almost 4 years at VMFA-211, I was fortunate to deploy on the HMS Queen Elizabeth’s maiden voyage as part of Operation Fortis 21. This joint deployment, featuring 10 F-35B from the Royal Navy and Air Force and 10 USMC F-35B included various operations all over the globe, providing the blue print for joint interoperability and showcased the strengths of the Joint Strike Fighter program. Working for four separate stellar Commanding Officers, and an unmatched Ready Room and enlisted cadre, my time at 211 helped show me what right looked like and set the standard for my career moving forward.

F-35B Lightning II using after-burner in a High G-Turn. (Author)

Tell us about your current assignment at VMFAT-502 as an instructor pilot and how did this lead to you now flying the F-35B Demo?  Is 502 now the sole Marine Corps F-35B demo squadron or is VMFAT-501 going to be responsible for the East Coast demo?

I’m currently a Fleet Replacement Pilot (FRS) Instructor Pilot. Our mission is to produce F-35B Replacement Pilots for the fleet operating force. It’s rewarding seeing students start from their first flight in the Lightning to executing complex tactical sorties. Seeing the ‘lightbulb moment’ out of so many motivated, high performing Marine Aviators is truly motivating and rewarding. My father instructed as well in the Navy towards the latter part of his career, and I take pride in the teaching and mentorship aspect associated with the position.

Visor up on Brembo’s helmet. Note: Callsign on side of helmet. (Author)

Growing up attending multiple airshows, I showed a deep interest upon arriving to 502 in obtaining the Demonstration Pilot Qualification and getting the opportunity to attend airshows at the controls of a front-line fighter. I can vividly remember attending airshows with my dad growing up, walking around holding various model airplanes and looking up in awe of the entire experience. It certainly influenced my career decision, and I feel blessed to now pass that feeling on to another generation of future Marine Dogfighters.

After an extensive workup from our former demonstration pilot, LtCol ‘Cali’ Callison, I was officially designated in January of this year. As the ground observer last season, I saw the performance first hand, and am excited to take to the skies this season as part of the F-35B West Coast Demonstration Team this season.

Brembo demonstrating vertical landing capabilities of the F-35B (Author)

Is the Demo pilot role a full-time job or are you also working and instructing new pilots in the F-35B? Approx. how many shows will you be flying the demo this year and are you the sole Marine Corps F-35B demo pilot or are their additional pilots on the east or west coast?

The Demo Pilot is in addition to my role as an FRS Instructor Pilot. We provide the Demo for 6+ airshows each season, primarily on the west coast, with VMFAT-501’s Demonstration Pilot executing airshow operations aimed at the east coast.

Who created and came up with the demo routine that you fly? Is the Yuma 2024 Airshow the first time you have flown a F-35B demo or have there been other shows you have flown?

The Level III Demonstration is similar to the Air Force and Navy variants, however ours showcases our Short Takeoff and Vertical Landing (STOVL) capabilities. Yuma 2024 will be my first airshow of the season. This season’s additional airshows will take place in San Francisco, Seattle, and San Antonio, to name a few.

Brembo leveling out the F-35B from VMFA-211. (Author)

Is there a formal process for your routine to be approved and signed off by Marines Senior leadership, similar to the Air Force Air Combat Command signing off on their demos for the Thunderbirds, Raptor, F-35A, etc?

Marine leadership approves the Level II and Level III show, as well as the FAA to ensure compliance and safety throughout.

What is it that you are trying to accomplish in the demo routine?  Obviously, the B model has the capability for vertical take-off and landing, therefore how do you incorporate that functionality into the demo and what do you want the air show attendee to take away from that demo.

The F-35B is the Swiss Army Knife of the Stealth Fighter Community. Its ability to takeoff with a full combat load in around 500 feet, execute supersonic flight at upwards of 1.6 Mach, leverage its stealth capabilities to close with and destroy the enemy makes it an asset to any Marine or Navy Commander’s arsenal. Its unique capabilities make it an exceptional expeditionary platform, the bread and butter of the Marine Corps’ mission.

Official Patch as worn by Brembo of the USMC F-35B Demo Team, VMFAT-502. (Author)

The Aviationist would like to send out huge thanks to Capt. Owen VanWyck, COMMSTRAT Director, MCAS Yuma, as well as Gunnery Sergeant Scott Roguska COMMSTRAT, MCAS Yuma, for all the hard work involved with running a first-rate airshow and accommodating all of the special requests directed your way.

In addition, a very special thanks to Major Craig Brembo Norris of VMFAT 502, MCAS Miramar, for his professionalism as well as taking the extra time to share personal family and career history.

About Howard German
Howard German is a freelance aviation researcher and photographer based in the United States. His main areas of specialty are defense, intelligence, weapons systems and surveillance. He has been writing, archiving and photographing the history and operations of aerospace for over thirty-five years.