The U.S. Marine Corps could start training new students to fly its F-35B short take-off vertical (STOVL) landing version of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) in August 2012, a senior Defense Department official said.
The DoD has opted to use an approach based on reducing risks prior to starting training operations at Eglin Air Force Base (AFB), Fla., current and former officials said. As such the Pentagon has not set a specific date to issue a military flight release. Instead, the start of training will be "event driven."
Currently "[The U.S. Air Force and Department of the Navy] are waiting for aircraft flight clearance for test pilot maturation flights," a senior DoD official said. Further, "both services are still trying to determine how many maturation hours are needed by test pilots before instructor pilots and then students can be trained."
But if everything goes as currently planned, the Marine Corps students will probably start flying their version of the Lightning II around August 2012.
"Looks like training for STOVL students may go around August of this coming year," the official said. "Once student training starts, it will include all modes including STOVL."
Originally, the STOVL training was projected to start around April 2012. Air Force pilots will likely start training in the F-35A conventional-takeoff version months before the Marines, as previously planned.
But before Marines or any other students take to the air, the F-35 will have to undertake initial maturation flights, using the jet's conventional takeoff and landing mode in the case of the STOVL aircraft. Once clearance is received, the F-35B will fly using all of its modes.
"Nobody wants to go too fast, but on the other hand nobody wants to go too slow," said former Marine Corps deputy commandant for aviation, retired Lt. Gen. George Trautman. "At the end of the day it's going to be informed subjectivity where the leadership decides what sorties need to be flown in the maturation phase. I trust their collective judgment."
Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Emerson Gardner, a former aviator and deputy director of the Pentagon's Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office, agreed.
"This is a validation of the Marine Corps' event-driven process to achieving initial operating capability," he said. "Instead of identifying specific dates for levels of capability, they have identified which capabilities/levels of proficiency need to be demonstrated before moving to the next level and developed a stair step process to achieving it."
Trautman said that there is an ongoing debate about how many maturation hours the F-35 needs before operational pilots should start flying it.
"I'm actually hoping it doesn't take till August," he said. "There has been a dialogue going on about how many maturation hours are required."
The debate, which is taking place between engineers and other official at Naval Air Systems Command and the Air Force's Aeronautical System Center, stems from the fact the aircraft at Eglin are operational planes flown by fleet pilots, not instrumented like test aircraft at Edwards AFB, Calif., or Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Md., Trautman said.
But when it happens, the start of training operations will be an important milestone for the F-35 program.
"Whenever it occurs, absolutely it's a huge deal," Trautman said. "We want to start flying the airplane, we want to start getting the training cadre, the instructor cadre, up to speed so we can start getting students through there."
The sooner the maturation requirements can be met, the sooner the Marines can get pilots through the training pipeline, he said. Getting a base of trained pilots would then allow the Marines to move on to spooling up the first operational F-35B squadron at the Marines' base in Yuma, Az.
"It's been slower in the past year than we would have hoped, but there is lots of indication that the pace is going to pick-up. As it picks up, and things continue to go well for the program, that's the path that they're on, to stand-up that first squadron in Yuma," Trautman said. "It's just the normal evolution of things and it's good to know we're moving in that direction."
"The Corps has begun the transition of all of its aviation inventory over the past decade, from MV-22s to UH-1Ys to AH-1Zs and now to the F-35B. Based on that history, they have learned to be event-driven and not calendar driven," he said. "The fact that they are continuing to move down this path confirms their confidence in the capability and should hearten supporters of the program."