MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. --- The third F-35B Joint Strike Fighter landed at a test site in Maryland Feb. 17, 2010, to continue necessary evaluations before it can be delivered to operational squadrons throughout the Marine Corps, including some in Yuma.
After making its first flight only a few weeks earlier on Feb. 2, the newest F-35B flew from its factory in Fort Worth, Texas, to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., joining the other two short takeoff/vertical landing variants of the Marines’ future fixed-wing fighter jets already in testing.
The aircraft, designated BF-3, will be used mainly to evaluate vehicle systems and expand the aircraft’s aerodynamic and structural-loads envelope, according to Lockheed Martin, the JSF’s manufacturer.
The airplane will also focus on weapons testing, and will carry and release most of the weapons the F-35B will use in combat, reported Lockheed Martin.
In total, five F-35Bs will be delivered to Patuxent River. The last two airplanes will be used to test the F-35’s integrated mission systems.
The first plane arrived in Maryland on Nov. 15, 2009, in order to test shorter takeoff runs and slower landings, eventually culminating in the plane’s first vertical landing, according to a Headquarters Marine Corps press release.
The arrival of the test jet at Patuxent River is a “big deal for the Marine Corps,” said the deputy commandant for aviation, Lt. Gen. George J. Trautman III, after the arrival of the first F-35B.
The F-35B passed the first test of its STOVL propulsion system Jan. 7, successfully using the system for 14 minutes at an altitude of 5,000 feet.
Further testing will include flying with different weight loads and ordnance and working up to shipboard operations.
On Dec. 29, the second F-35B test plane was flown to Patuxent River by a Marine pilot, Maj. Joseph T. “O.D.” Bachmann.
Despite recent shake-ups and delays within the JSF program, the Marine Corps remains on schedule to have its first operational squadron by 2012(Emphasis added—Ed.), reported Lockheed Martin and military officials.
On Feb. 15, Deputy Defense Secretary Bill Lynn announced the JSF program would have at least a one-year delay, but exactly how it would affect long-term fielding of Marine Corps planes remains uncertain.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced Feb. 1 that he withheld $614 million in performance fees from Lockheed Martin and fired Maj. Gen. David R. Heinz, the Marine general in charge of the program.
“The taxpayers should not have to bear the entire burden of getting the JSF program on track,” said Gates.
Heinz will be replaced with a yet-to-be-named three-star general, said Gates, stressing the higher rank reflects the importance of the program to the future of military aviation.
“Our focus remains on fielding the F-35’s tremendous capabilities to our warfighters,” said Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin executive vice president and general manager of F-35 program integration.
In April, Marine Fighter/Attack Training Squadron 501 will officially stand up as part of the Joint Integrated Training Center located at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The work done at Patuxent River will enable the Marine Corps to start training Marine pilots and maintainers by late 2010.
Derived from a common design, developed together and using the same sustainment infrastructure worldwide, three F-35 variants will replace at least 13 types of aircraft for 11 nations initially, making it the most cost-effective fighter program in history, according to Lockheed Martin.
The Air Force will receive the F-35A variant, which will provide conventional takeoff and landing capabilities.
The Navy will receive the F-35C, designed for carrier launches and duty at sea.
Compared to the Marine Corps’ current tactical fixed-wing squadrons, the JSF can carry more ordnance with greater range than the F/A-18 Hornet, operate from austere environments like the AV-8B Harrier, and possess electronic warfare technology and capability like the EA-6B Prowler, according to Headquarters Marine Corps.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This story illustrates the Marine Corps’ uncertainty about the JSF program. Until now, the F-35 was to attain Initial Operational Capability (IOC) with the Marines in 2012, and this is reaffirmed in the body of the above story.
However, it also notes that “exactly how” the program's newly-announced 13-month delay “would affect long-term fielding of Marine Corps planes remains uncertain.”
And the headline states the Marine Corps is “on track for 2012 delivery,” which is a quite different animal than IOC.)