BF-01, the first F-35B short take-off/vertical landing Joint Strike Fighter built for the Marine Corps, performs a slow flyby for media July 29 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. (Christopher P. Cavas / Staff)
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NAVAL AIR STATION PATUXENT RIVER, Md. — In a graphic demonstration of the Marine Corps' strident support of its F-35B version of the tri-service Joint Strike Fighter, the service held the first-ever live demonstration of the aircraft's short take-off and vertical landing capabilities before reporters on Friday.
Piloted by Marine Lt. Col. Fred Schenk, the F-35B accelerated down the runway and lifted off in less than 450 feet. Once in the air, it flew past the assembled reporters and senior Marine Corps, Navy and industry brass at 60 knots airspeed. Schenk brought the plane, designated BF-1, to a hover and landed it vertically.
The display was all the more impressive because it was made during a humid summer day when temperatures exceeded 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat and humidity reduce aircraft and engine performance.
Moreover, BF-1 is a test aircraft, not a mature production plane. That is not without risk and the service took precautions. Multiple aircraft had been prepared as back-ups, test pilots at the base said.
At least one backup aircraft, BF-3, flown by test pilot Marine Lt. Col. Matt Kelly, went on to conduct a test sortie after BF-1 successfully flew its demonstration. BF-4, which is a mission systems test plane, was also on standby in case both aircraft aborted.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos, himself an F/A-18 Hornet pilot, reiterated that the F-35B is vital to his service. The Corps' position is that the service has no backup plans if the F-35B does not make it though the two-year probation period that then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates placed upon the variant when it encountered technical problem and fell behind in flight testing.
"There is no Plan B," Amos said. "We need this airplane."
Asked what would allow the F-35 to exit probation, Amos said that the exit criteria have not yet been set. But he voiced confidence the jet would meet whatever those requirements might be.
Lt. Gen. Terry Robling, the service's deputy commandant for aviation, said the F-35B's progress in test flights since last year was "amazing." The F-35B caught up on last year's test points, and is now head of this year's flight test schedule, he said. Soon, in September, the F-35B will go to sea onboard the amphibious assault ship Wasp, he said.
Robling also expressed confidence that the STOVL version, which is the most expensive version of the jet, will come down in price as production increases.
"As soon as that ramp goes up, the costs will start coming down dramatically," he said.
Robling and Amos both reiterated the Corps' argument that the service needs an aircraft that can be based anywhere, which is the primary requirement behind the F-35B. The F-35B model will allow the Navy and Marine Corps to effectively double the number of aircraft carriers in the fleet because amphibious assault ships would be able to carry strike aircraft.
However, the service is also buying five squadrons of the carrier variant F-35C model planes to support the Navy's carrier fleet. Robling said that even though the service is buying some 80 C-models, the F-35B can also operate from a Navy carrier.
The F-35B will also play in the DoD's Air-Sea Battle concept, Robling said. Despite sacrificing some range, the jet retains all the capabilities of the Air Force and Navy versions. The F-35B would also support the land component of Air-Sea by providing support to Marine ground operations with having to rely on a carrier, he said.
Robling reiterated the Marines' need for a fifth-generation fighter to counter emerging threats such as advanced Russian and Chinese aircraft.
"It's absolutely the aircraft that we need to counter the fifth-generation aircraft that are coming online in places like China, "Robling said. "If we take this fifth-generation aircraft away, there is not another one on the drawing boards in the United States."