The Making of a Joint Strike Fighter Pilot
"No promises were made about flying—at that time the airplane was just drawings—but with a few months to go until graduation the opportunity to work on a prototype aircraft was too good to pass up."
By Art Tomassetti
At 5:30 A.M., it's still dark as I key in the code to enter the hangar at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, home of Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501. In the ready room, I glance at the two flat-panel displays behind the duty desk: The first has weather radar, current and forecast weather, and airfield status; the other, today’s flight schedule, including pilots, aircraft, mission, and assigned training area. I am scheduled for a training mission, a formation sortie, with a student on his fourth flight in the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II. He’ll demonstrate close and tactical formation and formation approach maneuvers. The student is talking with the duty officer about the status of today’s divert airfields—places to land if Eglin’s runways are for any reason unavailable. As I walk over to grab a cup of coffee, I let him know that we will brief in five minutes.
As far as squadron ready rooms go, VMFATS-501’s is unusual: All the student and instructor pilots wear either weapons school or test pilot school graduate patches, and in some cases, both. In 2008, to select the first group of pilots to fly production F-35s, a board of senior officers reviewed the records of several dozen F/A-18 Hornet and AV-8B Harrier pilots. The criteria were stringent: 500-plus hours in their legacy aircraft, superior piloting skills, two years of fleet squadron experience, and demonstrated performance as a Marine. (If you consider the investment the Marine Corps was making with these pilots, you can understand the desire to pick those likely to rise through the ranks.) Six students made the cut.
In 1996, I was selected—finally—for the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School. (It was my seventh time applying in four years, proof that “never give up” is sage advice.) About midway through the year-long course, I was asked if I was interested in getting my orders changed from flight testing AV-8B Harriers in California to joining a project team supporting the Joint Strike Fighter. No promises were made about flying—at that time the airplane was just drawings—but with a few months to go until graduation the opportunity to work on a prototype aircraft was too good to pass up.
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