F-35 brings new era to Marine aviation

Yuma ceremony welcomes first operational squadron of Joint Strike Fighter

Lt. Col. Jeff Scott, commanding officer of VMFA-121, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121, at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, salutes during the re-designation ceremony for the squadron, with a backdrop of Marines and the F-35B Lightning II aircraft, the first Marine Corps squadron to receive the new jet. — Howard Lipin

Written by
Gretel C. Kovach
8:22 p.m., Nov. 20, 2012
Updated 11:59 p.m.

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    YUMA — The ceremony Tuesday to establish the Defense Department’s first operational squadron of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets was a marquee moment for the program and its most eager customer, the Marine Corps. It also was a reminder of how far the costly and long awaited aircraft must go before it is ready for battle.

    A squadron from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar that relinquished its Hornet F/A-18D fighter jets three months ago was relocated and rechristened Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 — an F-35B unit expected to grow to 16 jets and more than 300 Marines over the next year.

    Lockheed Martin was awarded the contract in 2001 to develop three versions of a “fifth generation” supersonic stealth jet sharing most of the missions systems and propulsion. The Marine Corps sought the most technically challenging version, one that can land like a helicopter, to replace three aging aircraft, the F/A-18 Hornet, the AV-8B Harrier and the EA-6B Prowler.

    The Air Force, which bought a conventional landing model, and the Navy, which ordered one that can land on aircraft carriers, both plan to use the F-35 to supplement other planes in their fleets.

    Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, said the F-35B is at the forefront of probably the most important transition in the 100-year history of Marine aviation since the introduction of the helicopter, as virtually every Marine aircraft is replaced by 2025.

    “For the first time in aviation history, the most lethal fighter characteristics, supersonic speed, radar-evading stealth, extreme agility, short takeoff/vertical landing capability, and an impressive array of 21st century weapons have been combined in a single platform … the F-35B Lightning II you see behind me,” Amos said during the ceremony.

    The F-35B still faces significant challenges as engineers fine-tune some 6 million lines of software code — about three times what the most sophisticated aircraft has — and the helmet-mounted display system, Amos said afterward.

    But he struck a triumphant note during the ceremony. “From the early challenges of the F-35 program, and more specifically arguments against the fielding of our B model, this program has arrived here today with a growing string of notable successes and significant momentum,” he said, citing accelerating flight testing, pilot training, and now the first operational squadron.

    When Lt. Col. Jeff “Magwa” Scott, commanding officer of the new squadron, and Sgt. Maj. Carlos Williams, its senior enlisted leader, uncased the colors, the “Green Knights” unfurled the next step in the evolution of Marine aviation and its integration with ground forces — the hallmark of the service that allows Marines to “fight above their weight,” said Robert Work, undersecretary of the Navy.

    The F-35B will also help the Marines integrate more deeply with Navy tactical aviation, Work added, by allowing the Corps to one day fly the same fighter jet off smaller amphibious ships as it does aircraft carriers, effectively doubling the Navy’s carrier fleet.

    “This is a big, big step for the Joint Strike Fighter program, which is going to maintain U.S. air dominance,” in coming years, he said, speaking to several hundred military, industry and political leaders gathered in a hangar on the Marine Corps Air Station Yuma flight line.