Your F-35B OT-1 Questions, Answered

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ART "TURBO" TOMASSETTI

He was the lead government pilot for the F-35 while it was still an X-plane.

He flew the first ever short takeoff, level supersonic dash and vertical landing…on a single flight.

Now, the former Marine Colonel serves as the F-35B U.S. Marine Corps  program manager on the F-35 team at Lockheed Martin.

Over the past few weeks, six F-35Bs were on the USS Wasp in the Atlantic Ocean conducting Operational Test-1 (OT-1)—a precursor to the Marine Corps’ declaration of F-35 Initial Operating Capability. We sat down with Art “Turbo” Tomassetti to ask a few questions about the USMC’s OT-1 and the future of Marine aviation with the F-35B. 

How will the F-35 support the Marine Corps once it reaches operational capability?

Today, legacy aircraft go out to an LHA or LHD (a U.S. Navy assault ship) as part of a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). They operate a variety of rotor, tilt rotor and Harrier aircraft. The typical deployment for a current aircraft community is six airplanes, so a squadron that has 14 airplanes detaches a piece of itself to deploy, which usually takes about six months. That’s what we do today, and F-35 will support the MEUs of tomorrow for the Marine Corps.    

What’s the difference between previous tests, Development Test-1 and 2 (DT-1 and DT-2) and Operational Test-1?

So, we’ve been out to the ship before on DT-1 and DT-2 with the F-35B. The focus of those tests was to make sure the airplane can operate from a ship and to determine if there’s anything on the airplane or the ship that needs to be changed in order to facilitate operations. Basically, we wanted to determine if the aircraft met the requirements outlined in the customer specifications for shipboard operations.

There are several differences between DT tests and OT-1. First, it’s an Operational Test, not a Developmental Test—instead of seeing if the airplane operates on the ship, the job is to figure out how best to operate the airplane on the ship. Second, this time we’re sending six airplanes, not two.   

"Instead of seeing if the airplane operates on the ship, the job is to figure out how best to operate the airplane on the ship."

We already know it can operate—now they figure out what’s the best way to operate it. It’s an important step because it would be easy to say, “OK, just do with the F-35 what has been done with the Harrier for the last 30 years. Operate it the same way—use the same mindset for moving the airplanes around and their recovery.” I think, and I hope most people would agree, that would be unfair to the F-35 because the F-35 is a different airplane. So, you need to figure out what the best way to operate the F-35 is, just like they did with the Harrier decades ago.    

What goes into preparing for OT-1?

This event is supported by Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 based at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Yuma, Arizona, and Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron-501, based at MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina, as well as the Operational Test team. So, what’s great about that is that any time you mix people up you get new ideas and points of view. They all have the same plane, but they can learn from each other by working together on the ship.

A tremendous amount of planning and preparation for OT-1 has taken place during the past several months. Some of that prep for OT-1 is fairly standard—before going to a ship, the pilots will practice on a mock-up of a ship, essentially just a copy of the deck of a ship located in the desert near MCAS Yuma.

This is called Field Carrier Landing Practice  and they’ll have the Landing Signal Officer  there in a tower, which represents the island on the ship, so they can judge the aircraft as it comes in for landing from the same vantage point they have on the ship. 

"Before going to a ship, the pilots will practice on a mock-up of a ship, essentially just a copy of the deck of a ship located in the desert near MCAS Yuma...they’ll have the Landing Signal Officer there in a tower, which represents the island on the ship, so they can judge the aircraft as it comes in for landing from the same vantage point they have on the ship."

What are some of the key capabilities that will distinguish the F-35 from legacy aircraft when it comes to operating at sea?

What we’ve already seen from the DT-1 and DT-2 events that have taken place—and what I expect we’ll continue to hear—is that the airplane is much easier to handle and fly.Legacy aircraft are not fly-by-wire, where the F-35 is all digital and has lots of computers to help the pilot control the airplane where and how they want to maneuver it. We will learn a lot about integrating the aircraft with the ship as well as conducting multi-aircraft evolutions.

The piece that we may or may not see on OT-1—because the rest of the MEU assets are not part of this particular operational testing event—is how the F-35’s ability to see and perceive the battlespace and what is going on contributes to the warfighting capability of the MEU. That information can be shared with not only the Marines that are flying F-35s but can be pushed back to the ship, to the Marines on the ground and to the helicopters and tilt-rotors that are flying.

"The airplane is much easier to handle and fly – legacy aircraft are not fly-by-wire, where the F-35 is all digital and has lots of computers to help the pilot control the airplane where and how they want to maneuver it. We will learn a lot about integrating the aircraft with the ship as well as conducting multi-aircraft evolutions."

Why is it important for the warfighter to have the F-35?

The threat is constantly changing—and there’s only so much you can upgrade on a legacy aircraft. So as good as a job we do on upgrading and evolving what we have, we eventually hit a limit where we need a new aircraft.    

"The F-35 is 5th Generation. The Marine Corps hasn’t had a low-observable aircraft in the past, so that’s something that can also change the way they operate."

Additionally, the F-35 is 5th Generation. The Marine Corps hasn’t had a low-observable aircraft in the past, so that’s something that can also change the way they operate. The F-35’s sensors and ability to collect and disseminate information all add to the lethality and survivability of the plane. We also know a lot about this airplane—it knows a lot about itself. So when it comes back and tells you that something needs maintenance, that’s time saved and a big advantage. And it can help shorten maintenance times in an environment where sometimes just flying more than your opponent provides an advantage.

You want the warfighter to have a more capable airplane, an airplane that is going to enable them to be ready for the mission, more effective for the mission and that’s going to bring them home safely at the end of the day. 

"We also know a lot about this airplane – it knows a lot about itself. So when it comes back and tells you that something needs maintenance, that’s time saved and a big advantage."