March 21, 2011 (by Samuel King Jr.) - Marine aviators of Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 completed four sorties this week in F-16 Fighting Falcons, beginning a familiarization process to ensure readiness and efficiency in the transition to the Department of Defense's fifth-generation fighter, the F-35B Lightning II.
Marine Capt. Mark Noble taxis F-16D block 25 #83-1181 on the flight-line at Eglin AFB, after flying a training sortie on March 18th, 2011. Pilots from Marine VMFAT-501 will be flying the new F-35B Lightning II joint strike fighter and are training at Eglin AFB. [USAF photo by Samuel King Jr.]
"It's a tremendous opportunity to fly (these sorties)," said Lt. Col. James Wellons, the VMFAT-501 commander. "This is the first time a VMFAT-501 pilot has flown here at our new home."
Officials elected to bring the F-16 Fighting Falcon from Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., to the 33rd Fighter Wing, because of its similarity to its descendant, the F-35. Its flying characteristics are similar to the F-35, so the training and mindset pilots will have in a single-engine fighter transitions from the F-16 into the F-35.
The Marines, who'd only flown in Marine and Naval fighters, they discovered vast similarities to the Air Force F-16 and their AV-8B Harriers, F/A-18 Hornets and EA-6B Prowlers.
"In many ways there was no difference," Colonel Wellons said. "It was very similar to how it feels to fly any tactical aircraft."
The differences they did notice were the Air Force language and methods used to communicate about and inside the aircraft. For example, Marine aviators use hand gestures to communicate aircraft movement, while Air Force aircrews may tip or tilt the wings of the aircraft to indicate a procedure.
This familiarization is doubly beneficial to the Marines, not just to understand an aircraft style similar to the F-35, but to also experience Eglin's runway and flightline operations, maintenance procedures and airspace.
"This training allows us to eliminate the added variables of learning all new flight operations with a completely unfamiliar aircraft all at the same time," said Capt. Mark Noble, the aviator safety officer for VMFAT-501. "If we already understand flightline procedures and guidelines and know what to expect from a similar aircraft, we can focus primarily on F-35B training."
Looking back on their first flight in months, both Marines admitted to a bit of aviator "rust," but were glad to be back in the seat and flying.
"This is a major milestone for VMFAT-501," Colonel Wellons said. "Every time a Marine flies an aircraft here, it's one step closer to putting F-35s in the air."
The Marine variant of joint strike fighter, the F-35B, contains a short take-off and vertical landing engine. The STOVL
variant will replace the Marine Corps inventory of F/A-18s and AV-8s. The Italian air force is the only international partner scheduled to fly the STOVL variant. The F-35B will be the world's first operational supersonic STOVL aircraft.