Now it’s getting serious: US Marines to start F-35 training at Eglin Air Force Base

By on August 24, 2012

At Florida’s Elgin Air Force Base, U.S. Marine Corps pilots are gearing up to begin training flights on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Lockheed Martin Corp delivered 10 F-35B model radar-evading jets, which can take off from shorter runways and land like a helicopter. Lockheed is developing the multirole stealth F-35 for the U.S. military and eight international partners at a projected cost of around $396 billion.

Britain’s BAE Systems is a key contractor on the project. Other subcontractors include Northrop Grumman Corp and United Technologies Corp.

Within the U.S. armed forces, though, it’s the Marines who are likely to be the first to use them in the field and declare the F-35 “initial operational capability,” because they do not plan to wait for more sophisticated software upgrades required by the other services.

The Marine Corps is moving forward with training flights, demonstrating a vote of confidence in the seemingly troubled F-35 fighter program—a program that has been restructured three times, which delayed production and subsequently the jet’s operational use.

The Marine Corps, however, is growing increasingly concerned—urgently needing to replace their current fleet of aging fighters. They made a bold move to forego formal evaluations of the F-35’s operational utility—something the Air Force is completing. Marines are going ahead with its own pilot training flights at the base.

As reported by Reuters, “The Marines are determined to get this plane into the field as soon as it can be safely accomplished. They don’t want to be slowed down by bureaucratic obstacles,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute think tank.

Test pilots began preliminary orientation flights of the F-35B in May, completing an average of 200 flights to date but with limitations. They have not conducted vertical landings at the air base yet, for example.

In fact, until this new development by the Marine Corps was announced, training of future pilots for the F-35B model was confined to simulators and classroom exercises. For the military to start using these F-35s in operations, they must train a cadre of pilots and maintainers to fly and repair the jets. This is one major step in that direction.

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