PARIS --- F-35B fighters belonging to the US Marine Corps’ VMFA-121 squadron took nine days to fly from Yuma, Arizona to their new home at Iwakuni, Japan, a distance of 6,348 statute miles.
During this transfer, the aircraft covered an average of 793 statute miles (or 689 nautical miles) per day, moving barely faster than an automobile and well under the average speed limit on US highways. Fast jets cruise at around 400 kts, and so 689 nautical miles are normally covered in about an hour and 40 minutes.
Almost every intercontinental flight undertaken to date by F-35s has taken far longer than expected for a fast military jet, and each time official explanations are confused, contradictory or non-existent.
Given the F-35’s long history of technical problems, and the program’s even longer history of “spin” and obfuscation, one cannot but wonder whether some as-yet undisclosed fault makes it impossible for the aircraft to fly more than an hour or two per day.
The F-35s were accompanied by a large team of Pratt & Whitney technicians, according to a company statement. It is probable that a similar group of Lockheed Martin representatives also went along, but this has not been publicly confirmed.
In other words, 18 months after the Marine Corps declared Initial Operational Capability for the F-35B, and even as these allegedly “operational” fighters deploy to their foreign base, large numbers of civilian contractors are still required to maintain them.
Finally, it is interesting to note that every transatlantic flight to date by F-35s belonging to the US military services has been refueled by KC-10 Extender tankers, while the Italian air force’s F-35As were accompanied by Boeing KC-767A tanker and the Dutch air force F-35A crossings by its own KDC-10 tanker.
In fact, according to official accounts of all international F-35 flights to date, none have used the US Air Force’s standard tanker, the KC-135. Given the comparatively small number of KC-10s in the fleet, this seems to suggest an incompatibility between the F-35 and the KC-135, but this is another question that is left unanswered.
Crossing oceans at snail’s pace
No explanation has been provided for this surprisingly long, and slow, ferry mission to Japan.
Official statements about the transfer focus on the aircraft’s “superior” and “fifth-generation capabilities,” and hos they will revolutionize military operations in Asia, but are short on facts. The Marine Corps provided no useful information due to considerations of “operational security.”
But all ocean crossings by F-35 have been agonizingly slow, and their accounts often “massaged” to hide details.
The first transatlantic crossing, by two Italian air force F-35s, was initially claimed by the Joint Program Office to have taken two days but, after taking a closer look, we ascertained that it had in fact taken three days and a half. We also found that employees of the F-35 Joint Program Office and the US Air Force had released wrong information about the flight, and later coordinated their answers to our questions.
Two other crossings, by two Dutch air force F-35As to the Netherlands in May 2016, and by US Air Force F-35As and Marine Corps F-35Bs to the United Kingdom in June 2016, did not present any obvious anomaly.
The delivery flight of the first two Israeli F-35s in December 2016, however, took over six days and gave rise to many convoluted, contradictory and false explanations that were ultimately useless because their arrival was witnessed by half of the Israeli government cabinet, hundreds of journalists and over 2,000 invited guests.
In this latest ocean crossing, the ferry flight of the first two Marine Corps F-35Bs to Iwakuni, was of particular significance because it was the first actual deployment of an operational squadron – even if its aircraft are nowhere near operational – which was heralded to reinforce US allies Japan and South Korea in the face of a resurgent China.
Yet, while the aircraft’s departure from MCAS Yuma inspired several press releases, as did their arrival at MCAS Iwakuni, no information has been released about the flight itself.
(Pratt & Whitney video)
Six times slower than flying commercial
What is known, thanks to a Pratt & Whitney press release, is that the aircraft flew from Yuma to Elmendorf air force base in Alaska, and in a second leg flew directly to Iwakuni. This information was excised from the many US Navy and Marine Corps press releases about the event.
According to Google Earth, the first leg (Yuma-Elmendorf) is 2,523 statute miles long, and the second (Elmendorf to Iwakuni) 3,825 statute miles long, for a total of 6,348 statute miles, or 5,516 nautical miles. (see image).
The move took 9 calendar days, but since it gained an extra day while crossing the International Date Line, we used 8 days to compute speeds and times.
Using eight days, elementary arithmetic puts average speed at 793 miles per day, 33 statute miles per hour, or 28.7 knots.
Several airlines offer flights from Yuma to Iwakuni. The quickest one is with American Airlines in cooperation with ANA and Skywest Airlines, with stops in Phoenix, San Francisco and Haneda. The complete trip takes 32.5 hours, including 16 hours and 16 minutes of actual flight time, according to this flight schedule:
Leaving Yuma at 7:50 a.m. on a Monday, commercial flights arrive at Iwakuni, Japan at 8:40 a.m. on Wednesday, or 32.5 hours later, but the Marine F-35Bs took 192 hours to fly the same route. Flight times are highlighted in red, and transit times in blue. (Goggle Flights screen grab)
By comparison, the F-35s took eight days, or 192 hours, to cover the same distance – six times as long – and an unknown number of flight hours, given that the Marines consider this information to be secret.
The Marine Corps’ operational security cloak
In fact, the Marines consider almost everything about this flight to be secret.
VMFA-121 is now subordinated to III Marine Expeditionary Force, from whom we requested some details of the flight, including basics such as the number of aircraft that made the first flight, and when the remainder was due to follow. The answers are below.
1. Number of aircraft:
Some media accounts mention ten F-35s, others mention only two, and aircraft numbers are simply not mentioned in several Pentagon press releases about the flight. Marine 1st Lt. Joseph Butterfield, the Public Affairs Officer for the 1st Marine Air Wing of which VMFA-121 is now part, answered our e-mailed questions saying that “Due to operational security, we do not discuss details of … the exact number of aircraft currently assigned to our units.”
Several reporters who attended the aircraft’s departure from MCAS Yuma, mention that ten F-35Bs made the voyage, with several more to follow later, which makes the Marine spokesman’s invocation of operational security hard to understand.
2. Nine-day transfer:
Asked why the flight took 9 calendar days (in fact, 8 actual days, because the flight took o an extra day by crossing the International Date Line), Butterfield answered that “Several factors play into the arrival of the aircraft, including weather and availability of divert airfields. Safety of flight operations plays a large role in determining when to conduct this type of flight.”
Replying to a follow-up question, he said “Weather was the primary factor in the delayed arrival. Other factors that affected the arrival was availability of tanker support for the trip,” and subsequently that “the number of tankers was not an issue. There was a one day delay due to the tankers not being able to support. The primary factor was weather.”
So, one of the nine mission days was lost due to weather conditions delaying the tankers.
3. Four accompanying tankers:
According to a US Air Force Air Mobility Command Jan. 20 release, “Four KC-10 Extenders from Travis Air Force Base, California, and Joint Base McGuire Dix Lakehurst, New Jersey, participated in the operation.”
The tankers were controlled by the 618th Air Operations Center, which “planned the critical aerial refueling support carried out by KC-10 crews.”
No other details are provided, and no explanations are given why four tankers were needed to accompany the F-35Bs.
4. Flight route
The F-35s flew North along the coast to Alaska, where they stopped at Elmendorf AFB, then over the Bering Strait and down the Russian coastline to the Kuril Islands and through the Japanese archipelago to Iwakuni.
“The route chosen was based on operational necessity. After considering weather, safety, divert airfields and required fuel, the northern route was chosen as the best option,” the MAW III spokesman said.
Asked how may stopovers, how many flight hours and how many in-flight refuelings the transfer involved, his answer was that “As a matter of policy, we do not discuss detailed flight information that has the potential to impact future operations.”
5. Contractor backup still needed 18 months after IOC:
“A team of Pratt & Whitney field service representatives flew along with the squadron from Yuma, Arizona, to Elmendorf, Alaska,” Samuel H. Smith, deputy director, Navy/Marine Corps Sustainment, F135, at Pratt & Whitney said in a Jan 23 press release.
These field service reps "are down there in the trenches, at the squadron level, helping these Marines determine any questions they have on how to swap out an engine or a module or anything else," Smith said.
Below are the press releases issued about this transfer flight:
VMFA-121 departs for relocation to Japan (Jan 10, 2017)
Lightning II strikes Iwakuni, F-35B arrives (Jan 18, 2017)
F-35B arrives in Japan (Jan 18, 2017)
AMC enables first international F-35B deployment (Jan 20, 2017)
VMFA 121 Welcoming Ceremony (Jan 20, 2018)
Moving Day for Marine Corps Squadron Assisted by P&W Engines, Employees (Jan. 23, 2017)
-- Jan 31, 2017: corrected date of Jan. 20 press release in link.