YUMA, AZ: Sheer determination landed Capt. Tyler Bonnett in the cockpit of the Marine Corps’ new multi-role strike fighter, the F-35B. His deployment began early in the summer of 2018 with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). He boarded the Navy’s Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) with nine other F-35B pilots and six jets.
Bonnett is one of the highly-experienced aviators to fly the F-35B on combat missions from the Essex. The jet literally transforms the force capabilities as he and others rocket across the skies.
Capt. Tyler “Ditch” Bonnett.
Bonnett graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics from the University of North Dakota in 2008. He started out as a civilian flight instructor. A medical condition initially precluded Bonnett joining the Marine Corps. And while Bonnett has a heart murmur, he was eventually cleared by a heart specialist.
The same day he received medical clearance, he went back to his recruiter, who told him they weren’t accepting pilots for two years.
He picked up stakes and moved to California, and got a job for an aerial mapping company. After a couple months, Bonnett still wanted to do more. He saw a California recruiter and two and half years later he was at Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Quantico, Virginia.
Bonnett received his military aviation instruction at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Beaufort, SC with training squadron 501. After a number of simulator flights – he was up for the real thing.
Capt. Bonnett is a pilot currently assigned to VMFA-211, based in Yuma, AZ. A group of very experienced pilots were selected for the F-35B program.
“The F-35 is the most lethal, survivable and connected fighter aircraft ever built,” says its builder Lockheed Martin. What type of person flies it, enabling troops to execute their mission and come home safe?
Capt. Bonnett shares his F-35B experiences in the following interview.
CommDigiNews (CDN): It is really interesting that you went from flying the trainer jet to the F-35B. Can you share the learning curve?
Capt Tyler Bonnett (CTB): Your first flight is a Taxi Familiarization (FAM)…Your instructor hooks up to the side…he’s on a headset and talks you through the start-up process. You taxi out to a vertical landing pad. Out there, you convert and the jet does its transformer thing. That’s an emotional event because it’s the first time the lift fan spools up behind you – the first time all the doors open. You convert back out and taxi back in. The next flight there is a chase jet and an instructor…and you go off and fly. Pretty cool – you get to break the sound barrier the first time you fly.
CDN: What are some of the goals you hope to achieve going out on the 13th MEU?
CTB: I wanted to be the best wingman I could. I’d been in the Marine Corps about six years. There’s a whole lot of training that goes into it, and to finally do what I signed on to do.
You want to be at the top of your game when you’re going to support Marines on the ground. That was my mindset going into it. I started my section lead work-up. I actually got to lead some combat flights. That was a big step for me.
CDN: What is your most memorable flying experience on the MEU?
CTB: Definitely, the first combat mission I participated in. We [Bonnett and his lead] took off to meet our tanker, a KC-10…My lead goes to tank for the first time and there was an issue with the reel on the hose.
[Note: Luckily a back-up jet was available and Bonnet and his leadership were able to proceed with his first close air support mission supporting Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan.]
CTB: My lead and I were feeling pretty good…As I land on deck, you can see the smiles on the guys’ faces. My skipper was up there to meet me. My lead hopped out of his jet and came over and that was a pretty special memory for me.
Capt Bonnett shares his amazing F-35B experiences in this exclusive video.
CDN: You were part of Eastern Maverick 19 with Qatar and their Marines. Then you had Theater Amphibious Combat Rehearsal in Djibouti. Are there certain training grounds where you can set up targets and drop ordnance?
CTB: For both exercises, I did close air support. Went out there and dropped ordnance for the guys on the ground. I was out by myself. It was good – got to employ the gun…with live ammunition…We knew we were about to get in combat ops – any opportunity to get some good training in is obviously important. I was happy to work with another country and build that camaraderie with our allies.
CDN: You’re a single pilot flying the jet. You’ve got situational awareness, you’ve got your team, and you are deploying ordnance. What are some of the tools you employ to multi-task on all those levels?
CTB: Your biggest tool is your wingman. We back each other up all the time. The beauty of the F-35 is you’ve got sensor fusion. Typically an aircraft will have a heads up display in front…but we have all that information in our helmet. Everything, you are able to see in space and time.
You can see your air-to-surface designation…your wingman…you know exactly where he is. If you designate the adversary out there, there’s a box around him. Altitude, airspeed, aspect angle…is fused together in one display.
CDN: Were you able to support operations in Syria as well as Afghanistan?
CTB: We did support Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria.
CDN: You’ve done all this in training, over and over. When you know you are in combat is there a switch that flips?
CTB: If you play sports at all, before the ball goes up in the air and the ball is tipped – you always have those little jitters. Once you start flying – then you just fall back on your training. You stop thinking about the bigger picture of what you are doing [so] you focus on what’s happening in your cockpit. The nerves go away a little bit. There are good guys on the ground – there are bad guys on the ground and adrenaline picks up. When something kicks off, it’s usually pretty quick – you have to build your situational awareness very quickly.
CDN: When you are in that cockpit making crucial decisions, what’s the most important thing you keep in mind?
CTB: As soon as you start talking to the guys on the ground – they start relaying what’s happening. It’s a constant battle to understand everything that is happening on the ground. Building the picture…you can employ the jet however they [troops] need it. You always ask yourself ‘what’s next’? There’s no worse feeling than being behind the jet – we call it ‘hanging on the stabs’ [behind the jet stabilators]. You always try to predict what is going to happen next.
CDN: How has the stealth capability on the F-35 enhanced your ability as a pilot?
CTB: There are certain missions where stealth is more of a necessity than others. In defensive counterair [we make] sure the adversary stays where they should be and are not overflying American forces. We’re able to track them in that type of situation. We don’t want them to see us. The beauty of stealth – we’re able to get into areas…and ideally, do what we need to do there and get out without being detected.
CDN: What is the top speed you have flown so far?
CTB: I would say it’s probably around 1.2 mach.
Question: What’s the advantage of the F-35 over the Harrier?
CTB: Well, you’re really comparing apples to oranges with the Harrier and F-35. The Harrier is a great close air support platform, but we’re a multi-role fighter, so we do air-to-air arena, air to surface and have stealth and fusion technology. Those types of things bring a huge advantage for us over the Harrier.
There’s a lot of automation involved. Harrier pilots might like to say the computer flies us. Automation does simplify things. When you’re in the admin phase of flight (non-tactical)…you want that to be simple because you’re going to have…a lot of work to do when you’re up in theater in a combat mission, so you want all your attention on that.
[Of note from USMC officials: When returning to ship you need to be precise in what you do. Sometimes it is night, sometimes it’s low illumination, so the automation comes in very handy.]
CDN: You said a term I’m not familiar with – fusion technology.
CTB: All the different sensors on the jet piece together one image for us and that is what we call fusion. All that different information that the jet is gathering [is put] on display in front of us and builds this nice situation awareness enhancing the image. The F-35 platform is able to interpret information and also send it out to other aircraft.
CDN: Do you fly off and on any ship that has power projection in the area – whether amphibious or a carrier?
CTB: The F35-C is the carrier version. It has a launch bar and a hook on the back. It’s got beefier landing gear. The C doesn’t have the lift fan system, so that frees up a lot of space. Internally, they carry a lot more fuel. They’ve also got a wider wingspan for maneuverability at slow airspeeds for landing on the carrier.
The Bravo (B) version – we operate off smaller decks because we are the (STOVL) version – the short takeoff/vertical landing.
CDN: Do you feel more combat ready?
CTB: Absolutely. As a squadron – we flew 1200 combat hours. Training can only get you so far. When you’re out there, the situation is fluid and things are always changing. You can’t simulate something like that. As far as mission planning, I have a better understanding of what the larger effort is just to get us into the country. Working with the guys on the ground – I have a better understanding of what that is like. The experience of being out there – that has made me better.
CDN: What would you take away with you to your next deployment from what you learned on the 13th MEU?
CTB: There are eight months of invaluable lessons I learned, not just flying, but how to integrate with the MEU, how the ARG works. There’s a multi-service world-wide effort to make something like this happen. I have eight months of notes.
It was in the back of my head we were the first ones to do it for the F-35, so trying to capture everything that we learned to pass on to the guys behind us. We want to make the Marine Corps and all F-35 squadrons as good as they can possibly be.
CDN: What was the best part of the MEU experience for you?
CTB: You get to know the guys on the ship pretty well. You live in small quarters – work together every day. You develop friendships that you didn’t have before you were on the ship. Going into the MEU – you have so many questions. This is my first combat deployment. Where does our puzzle piece fit into this puzzle? Going out and traveling the world you begin to understand how the process works…of where you fit into all of it – that’s my biggest takeaway.
CDN: You are definitely a unique group to be recorded for history. What is the legacy you hope to leave behind?
CTB: At this point in my career, I really don’t think about legacy. It’s not something I’m trying to shape at all. I hope I’ve got a group of lifelong friends and a lifetime of stories to tell.
Thank you, Captain Bonnett and your Marine Corps. brethren for your service to America – CDN
Featured Image: Sept. 27, 2018. The F-35Bs conducted their first combat strike in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, Afghanistan. The aircraft from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 are currently embarked on the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) as part of Essex Amphibious Ready Group. (U.S. Air Force video (screenshot) by Senior Airman Xavier Navarro)