Category Archives: Military Aviation

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

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.

 

Yet another U.S. F/A-18 has just crashed in Japan. It’s the 9th Legacy Hornet lost in 6 months and the crash rate is alarming.

An F/A-18 Hornet stationed in Japan has crashed in the Yamaguchi prefecture. The pilot has ejected but his fate is unknown.

Reports are emerging that a U.S. F/A-18 Hornet has crashed earlier today in Japan. Rescue efforts to recover the pilot would be underway.

Although no further details are available at this time, the fact that the aircraft was stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, seems to suggest the jet involved in the crash was a U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18C/D model.

If confirmed this would be the 9th major incident involving a “Legacy Hornet” (including the Canadian CF-18 lost on Nov. 28, 2016) in the last 6 months.

Although each crash has its own root causes and may depend on several contributing factor (including the human error), we can’t but observe, once again, that the rate of crashes involving legacy Hornets is alarming.

Two U.S. Marine Corps F-18 Hornets from MCAS Miramar crashed on Nov. 9 near San Diego. Another one on Oct. 25. A Swiss Air Force Hornet was lost on Aug. 29, whereas a Navy F/A-18C crashed on Aug. 2. On Jul. 27 USMC F/A-18 crashed so as the Blue Angels Hornet that crashed on Jun. 2.

This is how we commented the Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 crash:

“In the wake of the Hornet crashes from June through October, the U.S. Marine Corps temporarily grounded its non-deployed Hornets. Unfortunately, few days after the ban was lifted, two more F/A-18Cs were lost on Nov. 9.

Hornet crashes over the last year have depleted the number of available airplanes for training and operations. According to USNI News the service had 85 Hornets available for training, compared to a requirement for 171.

In order to face the critical shortage of operational fighters caused by both crashes and high operational tempos, the U.S: Marine Corps has launched a plan that will see Boeing upgrade 30 retired legacy Hornets (currently stored at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona) to a standard dubbed F/A-18C+.

With this upgrade, that will also embed new avionics, the service will be able to keep up with its operational tasks until the F-35 is able to take over.

Once upgraded to the C+ standard, these “gap fillers” should be more than enough to conduct combat operations in low-lethality scenarios like those that see the USMC at work these days.

Furthermore, once these “refreshed” Hornets are delivered to the squadrons, older airframes can be retired, improving flight safety.”

Once again: aircraft may crash for a variety of reasons, not always technical. Still, the rate of Legacy Hornet crashes in the last months seems to be unusual and, as such, concerning.

 

Check Out This Photo of an F-35 Thundering Through The “Star Wars” Canyon With Visible Shock Waves

An F-35 performed some high-speed passes through the famous “Jedi Transition” in the Death Valley. Generating visible shockwaves.

The image in this post was taken by world-renowned Dutch photographer Frank Crébas in the Death Valley on Dec. 2, 2016.

It shows one of the RNlAF (Royal Netherlands Air Force) F-35A Lightning II with the 323 TES (Test & Evaluation Squadron), the Dutch unit based at Edwards Air Force Base and responsible for the Operational Test and Evaluation Phase (OT&E) as part of the Joint Operational Test Team, piloted by Maj. Ian “Gladys” Knight, the 323TES’s Director of Operations, flying at low altitude through the famous Rainbow Canyon, located adjacent to Death Valley.

As already explained here, the flight through the canyon (dubbed “Star Wars Canyon” for its resemblance to the ones where some of the most famous scenes of the Lucas’s saga were filmed) out into the expanse of Death Valley and referred to as the “Jedi Transition,” has become very popular with photographers from all around the world who daily exploit the unique opportunity to shoot fast jets, warbirds and also airlifters during their transit through the canyon.

Interestingly, this time the F-35s performed a really high-speed pass.

Take a look:

 

The aircraft was so fast it generated visible shock waves Crébas got thanks to his EOS 1DX mk II, with a EF-200-400 lens, at 1/2500 shutter speed.

“It was extremely windy out there and made it almost impossible to shoot with such a lens.. But I got it nailed ;-)” Frank wrote in a message to The Aviationist.

The speed of sound at the surface of the earth is a measure of the speed that a vibration travels through the atmosphere. At sea level, this speed is approximately 760 miles per hour (661 knots).

At speed lower than the transonic region, air flows smoothly around the airframe; in the transonic region, airflow begins to reach the speed of sound in localized areas on the aircraft, including the upper surface of the wing and the fuselage: shock waves, generated by pressure gradient resulting from the formation of supersonic flow regions, represent the location where the air moving at supersonic speed transitions to subsonic.

Check out more Frank Crébas’s stunning photographs at the Bluelife Aviation website and Facebook page.

 

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Russian Su-33 crashed in the Mediterranean while attempting to land on Kuznetsov aircraft carrier

Less than three weeks after losing a MiG-29, it looks like the Russian Navy has lost another aircraft during Admiral Kuznetsov operations: a Su-33 Flanker.

Military sources close to The Aviationist report that a Russian Navy Su-33 Flanker carrier-based multirole aircraft has crashed during flight operations from Admiral Kuznetsov on Saturday, Dec. 3.

According to the report, the combat plane crashed at its second attempt to land on the aircraft carrier in good weather conditions (visibility +10 kilometers, Sea State 4, wind at 12 knots): it seems that it missed the wires and failed to go around* falling short of the bow of the warship.

The pilot successfully ejected and was picked up by a Russian Navy search and rescue helicopter.

Considered that on Nov. 14 a MiG-29K crashed while recovering to the aircraft carrier, if confirmed this would be the second loss for the air wing embarked on Admiral Kuznetsov in less than three weeks and a significant blow for the Russian Naval Aviation during its combat deployment off Syria.

*Update: the Russian MoD has confirmed the incident. According to an official release the arresting wire snapped and failed to stop the aircraft.

Image credit: Russian MoD

 

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U.S. Air Force A-10 pilot who took part in a famous mission that knocked out 23 Iraqi tanks logs 6,000 hours in the Warthog

Whiteman Thunderbolt pilot has spent the equivalent of 250 days flying the A-10 “tankbuster” across the world (including 11 combat deployments.)

On Nov. 14, 2016, Lt. Col. John Marks, a pilot with the 303rd Fighter Squadron, logged his 6,000th hour in the A-10 Thunderbolt II at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, becoming one of the highest time fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force.

Marks has started flying the “Hawg” little less than 30 years ago. During the last three decades, he has flown the A-10 in theater during 11 combat deployments with the mission to support and protect forces on the ground.

“Six thousand hours is about 3,500 sorties with a takeoff and landing, often in lousy weather and inhospitable terrain,” said Col. Jim Macaulay, the 442d Operations Group commander in an Air Force release about the incredible milestone. “It’s solving the tactical problem on the ground hundreds of times and getting it right every time, keeping the friendlies safe. This includes being targeted and engaged hundreds of times by enemy fire.”

Lt. Col. Marks has started flying the Thunderbolt at low-altitude, in Europe, during the Cold War, when the A-10 focused on developing tactics to attack Soviet tanks in the battlefield.

During the years, the mission has evolved.

A-10s have become more sophisticated, new sensors and weapons have become available and these have made the “Warthog” even more lethal. Flying at higher altitudes above Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, the Thunderbolts remain the most efficient CAS (Close Air Support) platforms available.

“In the end, we can cover the ground forces with everything from a very low-altitude strafe pass only meters away from their position, to a long-range precision weapon delivered from outside threat ranges, and everything in between,” said Marks.

Noteworthy, Marks was part of an epic mission during the Gulf War, when two A-10s wiped out 23 Iraqi tanks (a story that we described in detail here.)

“The trio of missions I flew on February 25, 1991, with Eric Salomonson on which we destroyed or damaged 23 Iraqi tanks with oil fires raging all over Kuwait certainly stands out,” he expressed. “The sky was black from oil fires and smoke and burning targets, lending to an almost apocalyptic feel.”

Indeed, during the same mission, the A-10s landed twice at a FOL (Forward Operating Location), were refueled and re-armed to return over the battlefield and help the Marines near Kuwait City.

“Recently, a mission I flew on our most recent trip to Afghanistan, relieving a ground force pinned down by Taliban on 3 sides and in danger of being surrounded, using our own weapons while also coordinating strikes by an AC-130 gunship, 2 flights of F-16s, Apaches, and AH-6 Little Birds, stands out as a mission I’m proud of,” continued Marks about one of the most rewarding missions of his career, which earned him the President’s Award for the Air Force Reserve Command in 2015.

With such an experience, Marks serves as a mentor for younger pilots in training.

“I’ve watched him mentor young pilots in the briefing room then teach them in the air,” said Macaulay. “Every sortie, he brings it strong, which infects our young pilots that seek to emulate him.”

“I like to think we can show them a good work ethic as well,” Marks added. “You always have to be up on the newest weapons, the newest threats, the newest systems. You can never sit still.”

Marks has plans on flying the A-10 until he cans: his next goal is to reach 7,000 hours.

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Image credit: U.S. Air Force

 

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