EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- The Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron-501 celebrated the one-year anniversary of flying the F-35B Lightning II here Wednesday, May 22, by continuing to train up the pilots and maintainers on the nation's newest fifth-generation fighter.
"This is a once in a lifetime chance to get to write the first chapter in a story that will last 50 years and beyond," said Lt. Col. David Berke, the commander of VMFAT-501 located at the 33rd Fighter Wing's F-35 Integrated Training Center.
The low-observable fighter is designed to meet the needs of the services for the next half a century, making use of integrated sensors, the active electronically scanned array radar, and the distributed aperture system. Combined they provide the pilot with increased situational awareness and survivability.
Being able to fly such a technologically advanced fighter brings great responsibility for cultivating tomorrow's defenders of freedom.
"We owe it to our country to get it right," said Berke. Under his charge, the unit is laying the foundation for pilot and maintenance training at Eglin and providing the fleet with highly-trained people as it moves forward toward providing the Marine Corps with an initial operating capability.
Since May 22 last year, the unit has flown 833 local training sorties and logged more than 1,100 flight hours executing about 40 to 50 sorties a week. "This is a bounding leap from the three or so sorties flown a week last year at this time," said Berke.
Other accomplishments include verifying joint technical data for weapons loading thus paving the way for instructions for all three services and the partner nations; authoring well over one-thousand maintenance procedures; and collaborating with industry and other F-35 sites to mature the jet, he said.
A senior leader with the F-35 program since flying the X-35 prototype aircraft in the early years and who is now the 33rd Fighter Wing's vice commander as well as an F-35B instructor pilot agreed.
"If you look at what they have accomplished in air-to-air refueling training, ground hot refueling, multi-aircraft missions, first fleet pilots trained.... you don't just see one-time events," said Marine Corps Col. Arthur Tomassetti. "What you see is a pattern of not just demonstrating new capability but turning it into repeatable and routine operations."
By being able to refuel with a truck planeside while the jet is running has allowed the unit to "increase its ability to turn sorties by 40 percent," he said. The hot refueling allowed eight F-35s to fly 16 sorties in three hours recently.
In addition to the unit accomplishments made locally, VMFAT-501 has been the catalyst to accomplishments at Marine Fighter Attack Squadron-121 at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz.
VMFA-121 is the first operational fleet squadron anywhere in the world for the F-35 and comprised of flyers and maintainers trained at Eglin, according to Berke. Just last week a pilot trained here made his first vertical landing at Yuma. This feature allows the pilot to hover the fighter and set it down much like a helicopter.
"The ability to land in austere conditions is a key difference with the B variant of the F-35," said Berke. The Marines are planning to train the same way at Eglin in the fall.
For the upcoming year of flying, the Eglin unit also looks forward to receiving more jets to include its first Block 2A aircraft which means a software upgrade and increased capability, he said.
"We'll grow to 18 jets by this time next year," said Marine Corps Capt. Mario Valle, a maintenance officer at the training squadron. "And in the next couple weeks we are ready to welcome a third United Kingdom pilot and UK jet."
The Marines set another first this past year by hosting the first international pilots and maintainers imbedded at an F-35 training squadron. There are 14 maintainers and two pilots from the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy working seamlessly with the unit, said Valle.
As Valle reflected upon the past year he cited the team efforts by Lockheed Martin, Pratt and Whitney, Rolls Royce, the Marine Corps, Navy, the Air Force and operational test as key to past performance and the outlook for the future achievements.
"Our success has been based on relationships."