SAN DIEGO, May 9, 2016 – Warfighting capability has never looked so good for the Grim Reapers of U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 101. No stranger to supersonic jets and the pilots who fly them, VFA-101, based at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, is home for development and training for its fifth generation, multi-role fighter and attack jet, the F-35C Lightning II.
Lockheed Martin says its futuristic jet combines advanced stealth, integrated avionics, sensor fusion and superior logistics support with the most powerful and comprehensive sensor package of any fighter aircraft in history.
Lockheed Martin’s brainchild has some big wings to fill coming from the legacy fighter, F/A-18 Super Hornet. The Navy reported, “The F/A-18 demonstrated its capabilities and versatility during Operation Desert Storm, shooting down enemy fighters and subsequently bombing enemy targets with the same aircraft on the same mission.”
As the F/A-18 set the high bar, its successor, the super-fast F-35C carrier variant, is keeping America’s Navy ahead of the game played with potentially lethal adversaries. According to Lockheed Martin, the F-35C will enable pilots to be six to eight times more effective in air-to-air, air-to-ground, and surveillance missions.
A Purdue University and a naval TOPGUN (Naval Fighter Weapons School) graduate, Lieutenant Michael Jennings didn’t end up in the cockpit of the F-35C by chance. Beginning in 2013, Jennings served as the assistant operations officer of VFA-101 at Eglin and is one of only 25 pilots in the Navy trained to fly the F-35C.
After basic flight school, Jennings started flying the F/A-18C (Charlie) at Naval Air Station (NAS), Lemoore, California. From there, he transitioned to Fleet Replacement Squadron VFA-125 and flew the F/A-1E (Echo) Super Hornet. He went to Operational Squadron VFA-25 and served two deployments during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) 2010, 2012. Experiencing the full might of U.S. airpower and working with coalition allies on the ground was eye-opening for Jennings.
“It was pretty humbling to see and exciting to be working with foreign militaries, helping them any way we can,” he said.
Returning to the U.S., Jennings headed to TOPGUN at Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, NAS Fallon, Nevada. Jennings depicts TOPGUN as really nothing like the movie…and being lot of long days and hard work. He flew with the best pilots the Navy has to offer, in terms of the VFA community.
At TOPGUN, they don’t flex the standards.
“It’s one of a few classes/experiences you can have in the military where you can truly fail the class,” said Jennings. “Their whole mission is to make you better.”
As a TOPGUN graduate and qualified Strike Fighter Tactics instructor, Jennings moved on to join VFA-101. He describes his first experience with the F-35C as anxious, yet exciting.
“We had to do a bunch of sims (simulations), then a taxi ride around the airport, just getting used to strapping in and starting the aircraft up. Then once you get airborne and you’re flying – you’re like, ‘Man, this is impressive.’”
Jennings compares the maneuverability as very similar to the F/A-18E.
“I felt comfortable from the outset. It’s a completely different cockpit, very clean – like having two big iPads right next to each other – all touch-screen.”
Jennings points out, “Right now, we’re a training squadron, so we’re not carrying any weapons.” An F-35C advantage is that most of the payload is carried internally, which has numerous effects, including helping with stealth capability and substantially lessening drag.
The fact that big missiles won’t hang off the sides of the wings and will be internal makes the F-35C “more of a slick aircraft,” according to Jennings. He adds that not having big pylons on the wings, like the F/A-18, or external fuel tanks – just makes it that much quicker.
At Eglin, Jennings and his squadron flew 8-10 sorties per day. Jennings has clocked approximately 235 F-35C hours and reached speeds up to 1.2 Mach. He believes, “Speed is life when you start talking about flying, but stealth is a whole other aspect that was designed from ‘day one’ with this aircraft.”
The F-35’s advanced stealth allows pilots to penetrate areas without being detected by radars that legacy fighters cannot evade,” stated Lockheed Martin. Integrated sensors information and weapons systems allow a fifth-generation fighter pilot to see the enemy before he sees them, allowing the pilot to take action from a standoff distance.
“The sensors on board tie everything together, and it gives you a product you want to see,” stated Jennings. Critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions can be flown with more sophisticated data capture than ever before.
A core processor that performs over 400 billion operations per second increases the advantage of electronic warfare and ISR capabilities. Data processed from the classified electronic warfare suite helps the pilot identify enemy electronic emissions and radar. An electro-optical targeting system (ETOS) provides high-fidelity, 360-degree coverage that can be shared with commanders on the ground and at sea. The ETOS also recommends which target to attack and how best to counter or negate a threat.
Jennings reported, “There’s a lot of different systems built into this (F-35C) and we’re not even talking about the sensors we use to go and fight with – just the nature of it being a stealth aircraft. It’s designed differently than the F/A-18.”
A lot of their training is oriented around emergencies – so when it happens in real life, there’s no hesitation. They know exactly what to do – that has been a proven method for multiple years. He says, “We know what our ‘boldface’ is – the stuff we have to know from memory.”
When you jump to a new aircraft platform, time is needed to build familiarity with the new systems and work through possible kinks, whether cooling, electrical or timing. “We handle it pretty well with the amount of training and simulations we do,” said Jennings.
A carbon fiber helmet weighing approximately five pounds gives an F-35C pilot a 360-degree world of vital information inside his head. The F-35C cockpit’s heads up display (HUD) moves inside the helmet with Rockwell Collins’ F-35 Gen III helmet mounted display system. Each pilot is custom fitted for optical parameters, anatomy and comfort.
Pilots have a ‘heads up display’ projected on their visor that shows where the horizon is and how they are doing with their aircraft. “It gives indications like, ‘if you’re above the horizon, it’s solid lines and if you’re below, it’s dashed,’” said Jennings.
The helmet also displays air speed, altitude and weaponry status, while a pilot performs other in-flight duties. “If it’s a beautiful day outside, you can just look out and see how it’s (the aircraft) referenced,” stated Jennings. “When you get in instrument conditions, like bad weather and clouds, you have to rely on the HUD a little more.”
One of the most amazing characteristics of the HUD helmet is how a pilot can see through the airplane to the outside. Input from six exterior cameras gives a 360-degree view of the surroundings of the aircraft. If a pilot looks down, rather than see the floor of the cockpit, video input offers a view of the world under the jet. The helmet also supports night vision without goggles.
The helmet becomes second nature, and Jennings finds himself looking outside a lot more trying to find that guy he’s simulating shooting at. Pilots can make selections and even aim missiles with only their eyes using the helmet’s integrated eye tracking.
Jennings is currently assigned to VFA-101 Detachment at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, the future home base for the F-35C. He brings in knowledge and rare experience of testing the F-35C, shaping the training syllabus, helping other pilots transition from F/A-18’s or other platforms and indoctrinating new flight students to this new warfighter. He has witnessed what the F-35C is able to do.
Lockheed Martin sees its fifth-generation jet as delivering “innovative capabilities to meet security needs for nations across the world.”
The U.S. intends to use F-35 variant A conventional take-off and landing (CTOL), variant B short take-off and vertical- landing (STVOL), and variant C catapult take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) for the bulk of manned tactical airpower for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps over the coming decades.
For now, the Navy will continue to use the F/A-18 Super Hornets that can carry large payloads of advanced weapons, and complement the forthcoming F-35C.
“Naval Aviation is on the leading edge of achieving revolutionary changes in capability and operating concepts that include the ability to find, fix, target, track, engage, and assess threat,” Commander Jeannie Groeneveld, public affairs officer, commander, Naval Air Force, US Pacific Fleet, says. “The F-35C Lightning II will be an absolutely critical addition to the carrier strike groups (CSG) integrated warfighting package.”
Jennings sees it as, “If you’re not thinking about the future, you’re already lost.” He reminds that we (the US) are not only ones improving our hardware.
“Who doesn’t want to be the guy that can go and do what they are assigned to do and not worry about getting attacked?” asks Jennings. “There’s a lot of stuff going on around the world we see on the news every day — I mean, we have to be thinking big picture.”
“One of the great things about America – we’re always trying to stay a step ahead, because that going to help us continue to be the best military. With our kind of stealth capability, as well as the sensors we have on board, it’s going to give us the option to see the guys before they see us, and find the targets we want to go after before they can target us,” said Jennings.
Reliance on any single capability — electronic attack, stealth, etc. — is not sufficient for success and survivability in the future,” claims Lockheed Martin, adding that a squadron of F-35s can execute air-to air, air- to-ground, electronic attack, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions that were traditionally performed by specialized aircraft.
Jennings is another link in the storied history of the Grim Reapers of VFA-101, who were activated in June 1942. He is laying the first bricks in the foundation for the F-35C community, while his aircraft assures unparalleled access and power, allowing him and other pilots to return safely home.
“It’s kind of cool to think about,” said Jennings, “You step back and count your blessings for how lucky you are to actually be in this in this position.”