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An Inside Look at the F-35 Lightning II

The F-35B, a single-seat aircraft capable of stealthy operations, equipped with an enhanced computer technology system, and capable of performing short takeoff and vertical-landing capabilities while maintaining the conventional operations of other airplanes, awaits a flight at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., June 27. The F-35B is slated to replace the AV-8B Harrier, the F/A-18A Hornet and the EA-6B Prowler for the Corps. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Chelsea Flowers)

Col. Arthur Tomassetti has been an integral part of the development of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II and its prototype the X-35 since its inception. The F-35, which features three variants to be used by the Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy, is a single-seat aircraft capable of stealthy operations, equipped with an enhanced computer technology system and capable of performing short takeoff and vertical-landing capabilities while maintaining the conventional operations of other airplanes. The F-35B is slated to replace the AV-8B Harrier, the F/A-18A Hornet and the EA-6B Prowler for the Marine Corps.

Tomassetti took a few moments to talk with us about the capabilities of the F-35 as well as his role in its development.

| More: See what other new things may be in store for the Corps. |

At what point did you realize that an improved STOVL jet needed to be made?

“I knew before going to test pilot school that although the Harrier was a great aircraft, there were things it couldn’t do. Once you’re comfortable with an airplane – whether you’re flying it in routine missions or you’re flying it in combat – you start to learn what you want to do with the airplane and what you can do with the airplane. Any time there’s a difference, something needs to be done about it.”

What were your thoughts when you were invited as a test pilot to be part of the development of the F-35 and its prototypes the X-32 and X-35?

“When somebody becomes a test pilot, I would think in the back of their mind, they’re thinking, I want to be the first to do something; I want to fly something new and do something new. New things don’t happen as often today as they did in the 1950s and 1960s. They’re very few and far between. But there I was at the threshold of something called the X-35 and later the F-35. It was a very neat place to be.”

How much influence did you have in the creation of the F-35?

“The engineers would look to the pilots for guidance on development decisions. We were making the decisions on what the aircraft was going to be. That was pretty exciting because we had that much influence on the design of what those specific airplanes would be.”

What did you gain from being a part of the development of the prototype X-35 previously?

“Being on the ground floor of the X-35 and having all I learned from the X-35 to pull on as a resource of knowledge was a great thing for me personally and for the program overall. We got to carry all those lessons we learned forward. The things that worked really well, we kept them. The things that we needed to improve on, we now had time to get them fixed.”

What is the greatest strength of the F-35?

The strength of the F-35 isn’t the one airplane and what it can do. The strength of the F-35 is the group of airplanes and what they can do together. There is a sensor fusion that takes all the eyes and ears of the airplane and converges them all onto the display on the dash. Not only is the information displayed in your cockpit, but you can also transfer it to the F-35 next to you. It creates a flying network out in the battle space.”

How will the F-35 effectively replace the Harrier, the Prowler and the Hornet?

“We used to have F/A-18s go in as the fighter cover and F/A-18s and Harriers going in as the ones that were dropping the bombs and EA-6Bs as support from an electronic attack – all those airplanes to go after the one target that was heavily defended.  Now, we have four F-35s. They can do the fighter mission; they can do the bombing mission; they can do the electronic attack mission. They can go after that same target with a lot less airplanes.”

How will the F-35 aid in coalition warfare?

“In today’s environment, it’s usually not just the Marine Corps by itself. We’re operating with the Navy, Air Force and coalition partners. What happens when we’re all in F-35s? Now we can all share that information. In terms of coalition warfare, this airplane further increases everyone’s situational awareness to a greater extent than anything we have out there today.”

How will the F-35 adapt to years of changing technology and war environments?

The F-35 was built with the idea in mind that it would last 40-50 years, so some thought was put into how the world and technology would change. We built the airplane so it could incorporate some of those changes. It’s a software intensive airplane and software is easy to upgrade, as opposed to hardware. Also, things were built in modular format in the aircraft. If something doesn’t work, you take out the module, send it back to the factory, and put a new module in.”

How do you think the F-35 measures up to the STOVL capabilities the Corps needs?

“We’ve been trying to build STOVL airplanes since the 1950s. If you look at any sort of aviation history, there have been about two-dozen attempts in the jet world of airplanes that could do that kind of flying. Whatever you want to believe about the F-35 today, what no one seems to pick up on, is that we finally built the STOVL airplane we’ve been trying to build for 60 years.”

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