The multi-role aircraft, which sports electronic warfare, ISR and kinetic attack capabilities, is the linchpin of the Marine Corps’ future amphibious strike capability. It will be a vital tool for the service that serves as the nation’s go-to crisis response force, said Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, the assistant commandant for Marine aviation, while observing the testing that began May 18 and will continue through May 29.
“We will be not just the nation’s force in readiness, but the nation’s force of choice,” he said, touting its ability to be launched on a moment’s notice from amphibious ships floating just miles off the shore of any country or continent.
Beyond basic shipboard launching and landing, test pilots have been conducting elaborate war games, pitting F-35s against each other in dogfights defined by the aircraft’s next-generation sensor technology.
But perhaps the most valuable lessons learned are being gleaned by maintainers and logisticians who must figure out how to service and repair a strike fighter that is bigger than an F/A-18 Hornet and more complex than an AV-8B Harrier.
British Lt. Cdr. Beth Kitchen, who is assigned to VMFAT-501, said that has meant everything from repairing a tire to changing an engine. Those are all tasks that have been successfully mastered ashore, but deck motion, space constraints and the need to tie assets down complicate many procedures, she said.
Kitchen and the maintainers she oversees have now installed and uninstalled components including the lift fan that gives the aircraft its STOVL capability, canopies and ejection seats. The idea is not only to ensure maintainers are correctly trained and can execute their tasks, but also to document difficulties so they can be remedied before the aircraft is fully operational and deployed. So far, however, Kitchen said they have not found the need for many changes.
“We are confident we can maintain these aircraft at sea,” she said.
In fact, the biggest and most important question has now been answered regarding the aircraft’s behemoth engine produced by Pratt & Whitney. One was successfully brought aboard the Wasp May 20 via MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft. It now sits in the ship’s maintenance hangar.
The successful exercise proved that the engine could be placed on a custom-built cradle that fits in an Osprey without surpassing weight and balance limits that would degrade the tiltrotor’s handling beyond acceptable limits.