VMFAT-501 Initial Ascension Pilots to Finish Training on F-35B Lightning II

MCAS Beaufort // February 11, 2017

Read the article from USMC.

Two Marines aboard Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort are training to be the first Category One F-35B Lightning II pilots in the Department of Defense.

Capt. Taylor Zehrung and Capt. Robert Reddy are the first brand new pilots to finish training on the F-35B and go on to an operational squadron.

“We are considered new pilots in the Marine Corps,” said Reddy, a training pilot in Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501. “The other pilots qualified on the F-35B here all transitioned from other aircraft to the F-35. I came from my last school in Mississippi and came to Beaufort to learn how to fly the F-35. I have no previous experiences with the F-18’s or the AV-8B Harrier II.”

Because the F-35B is a new aircraft in the DOD, training on it is an experimental process. Training on the F-35 as a new pilot has never been done in the DOD yet, so creating a syllabus and training schedule was experimental and a work in progress. Reddy and Zehrung trained on a set syllabus consisting of classroom, simulator, and in-flight instruction.

“We started in a real crawl, walk, run style,” said Reddy. “We started off with classroom instruction and a lot of simulator hours. We had to learn all of the systems that make up the aircraft and how to use and troubleshoot them. We did not start training in the F-35 until we completed between 30 to 40 hours in the simulator. It was around four months until we got into the F-35. The first thing we did in the F-35 was starting it up and taxying around the flight line, to get a feel for the aircraft. It was a lot like driving a car for the first time in a parking

After learning the simulations and the different parts of the aircraft the two category one pilots were ready to fly for the first time. Reddy and Zehrung did not begin flying until 11 weeks after the beginning of training.

“Our first flight was unlike anything I have experienced,” said Reddy. “I practiced flying on T-45 Goshawk and it felt like just the engine of the F-35 was the size of the Goshawk. We went out over the ocean and did a bunch of loops and barrel rolls and the Mach run, where the very first time you fly you break the sound barrier. It was awesome to go supersonic for the first time, it is a feeling you cannot recreate. After that you just come back and practice landing and taxying around the flight line again.”

The final exercise the two pilots conducted was a MAG-wide operation with aircraft from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 251 and Marine Fighter Training Squadron 401.

“Our final exercise was with the entire (MAG- 31),” said Reddy. “It was considered our culminating exercise where we put everything we learned into practice. We flew with four F-18s, eight F-5’s, and four F-15s. There were about 20 jets in the air space fighting each other. It was really great to go out there and participate in such a larger scale exercise.”

After some minor simulations and exercises, Reddy and Zehrung will be considered syllabus -complete. The two category one pilots are scheduled to receive the patch of their new units during a patching ceremony scheduled for the end of February. 

“These pilots are now one of a kind,” said Maj. Kyle Shoop, the executive officer of VMAT- 501. “How they trained and the success in the MAG-wide exercise validates the syllabus and is a testament to pilots in the category one program.”

After the patching ceremony Zehrung and Reddy will go to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 in Iwakuni Japan. VMFA- 121 is one of the first operational F-35 squadron in the Marine Corps.