‘Grim Reapers’ begin testing F-35

F-35C Lightning II fighter jets have been training at Naval Air Station for the past week.

F-35C Lightning II fighter jets have been training at Naval Air Station for the past week.

FALLON — The continual training for Navy aviation in the 21st century begins at Fallon.

The next step for Navy fighter pilots has begun over the Nevada desert as the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center is working with F-35C crews to refine their tactics, techniques and procedures with the Fallon Range Training Complex. Community leaders talked to experts at the air station on Thursday, while the media had their first glimpse of the newest fighter jet in the United States military arsenal.

The first F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter to train with NAWDC is also conducting familiarization fights with local F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets, said Zip Upham, spokesman for Naval Air Station Fallon. Pilots are assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 101 (VFA-101), the only single-site F-35C Fleet Replacement Squadron that’s a subordinate unit of the joint 33d Fighter Wing (33 FW) at Elgin Air Force Base, Fla. The “Grim Reapers” of VFA 101 have flown thousands of flight hours in the F-35C.

The F-35C is designed to land and take off either from a conventional airfield or aircraft carrier.

Upham said the single-seat, single-engine stealth strike fighter is scheduled to be based at NAS Lemoore (California), in 2017. The fighter also comes in two other variations: The F-35A allows pilots to take off from conventional airfields, while the F-35B perform a short landing or vertical ascension similar to a Harrier Jump Jet used by the U.S. Marine Corps.

According to the Pentagon, each Lockheed Martin F-35 ready for flight costs more than $200 million.

Rear Adm. Scott D. Conn, commander of NAWDC, said VFA 101 is training for the first time at Fallon to learn more about tactics and the capabilities of the F-35C, the newest fighter jet that will be assigned to aircraft carriers. For NAWDC, this is only the beginning.

“The aircraft is going through various tests and the aircraft continues to mature to the next level,” Conn said. “That’s why the first squadron and its air crew will fly that aircraft to its full specifications as it was designed.”

The role of NAWDC, according to Conn, is for pilots and their crews to be properly trained when their squadrons are deployed aboard aircraft carriers. Conn said in a few years training cycles will ensure pilots will know their roles and will be familiar with the jet. Although the F-35C is the Navy’s jet of the future, he said the F/A-18 Super Hornet isn’t disappearing.

“The Hornet will be around for 20 or 30 more years,” Conn said. “The F-35s, the (EA-18G) Growlers, the Super Hornets will work together in the Navy within the joint force and with our partners.”

In addition to Navy pilots assigned to Elgin AFB, Marine Corps aviators and their maintainers are training at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort (South Carolina), and the U.S. Air Fore and all international partners are flying out of a base near Phoenix. In 2011, the Pentagon announced the F-35 Lightning II would replace the F-16 as the primary training aircraft at the Luke Air Force Base.

Eventually, Conn said carrier air wings will have one, possibly two squadrons, consisting of F-35Cs.

The “Grim Reapers” commander, Cmdr. James Christie, said this is the only F-35C squad in the Navy. “If Fallon wanted F-35 integration, it was going to be VFA 101,” said Christie, who was assigned to NAWDC before transferring to Elgin AFB in the spring. “The brilliant tacticians here will make this plane better.”

The bond between F-35C pilots and NAWDC is strong because many aviators have either trained or taught at Fallon. Christie figures at least half of his 22-year career has been spent at Fallon in one capacity or another. Furthermore, he added several pilots with the squadron have deep connections with NAWDC.

Christie, who has enjoyed flying many Navy jets, said some similarities exist between the Super Hornet and F-35C. “It’s a breeze to fly,” Christie said, “but there is so much information to absorb.”

The Washington State native said the F-35C represents the future for both the Navy and its pilots.

“This is a whole new animal,” Christie said. “Some of the basic tactics we use on other airplane, but in many regards, it’s a whole new ballgame, and that’s what makes it fun and academically challenging.”


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