More progress for a program that seems like it had so little for so long. The first US Navy squadron operating the F-35C Lightning II, Strike Fighter Squadron One Zero One, the “Grim Reapers,” just returned to their home station at Eglin AFB, Florida from a two-week visit to NAS Fallon, Nevada.
With the overall objective being to participate in air-to-air training alongside Topgun instructors in F/A-18s at the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center, the visit was another step on the road to the Navy’s IOC (Initial Operational Capability) in the new 5th-Generation fighter, tentatively scheduled for 2018.
VFA-101 pilots’ first order of business was to assess established strike fighter tactics, techniques, and procedures with a new dynamic: Super Hornets and Joint Strike Fighters flying missions together as they’re scheduled to do for the foreseeable future. The next, and just as important objective, was carrying out another detachment with the F-35, which will becom part of its standard work-up cycle–like all other Naval Aviation units.
“It is really cool to be taking this aircraft to the first places it ever goes,” said Master Chief Avionics Technician (AW/SW) Mike Baker, VFA-101’s maintenance master chief. “We’ve got four planes, doing real missions with real exercises going on out there,” he said of the Fallon trip. “We’re the first ones to do this, so we own that, too.”
The final item on VFA-101’s to-do list was to give NAS Fallon and its tenant commands a sample of what it will be like to have another aircraft type in its ranks, once they start receiving the first of their eventual six Lightning IIs. The base will undertake some modifications to infrastructure, such as the addition of outdoor canopies to protect the F-35 cockpits from the Nevada heat, as mentioned by NAS Fallon spokesman Zip Upham.
Whether you love the aircraft or hate it, Grim Reapers F-35Cs at Fallon is a sign of progress–always a good thing when it was lacking for extended periods of time. Once all of the F-35 units, across all three services, are at their full operational capability (FOC) is when we can really start to get a grasp of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Until then it would be wise to exercise patience, no matter how challenging it is at times, and no matter what uninformed media sources try to feed us.