The US Marine Corps hopes to start local area flights with the Lockheed Martin F-35B at Eglin AFB, Florida, in early April, with operational student pilots starting to train "in the autumn", a senior service official says.

"We anticipate flying at Eglin to start in the next month," the official says. "And our first student pilots to start training next fall to coincide with the delivery of the operational squadron aircraft at MCAS [Marine Corps Air Station] Yuma [Arizona]."

But before training operations can begin, the Marines and other services need to be confident that the F-35 is robust enough to withstand the rigours of flying day-to-day sorties while being operated by fleet aviators and maintenance personnel.

"We will initially focus our effort at Eglin with VMFAT-501 and over the next few months conduct local area flights to establish our confidence in the maturity of the aircraft to sustain training operations," the official says. That would be "followed by an evaluation of the JSF [Joint Strike Fighter] aircrew training process, and then after review of the results of these efforts to determine the readiness to commence student training."

The Marines are going to use the first few operational aircraft to be delivered to bolster the training fleet Eglin until the service can set up its operational evaluation fleet at Edwards AFB in California, the official says.

"Based on the most recent JSF programme office schedules we expect to standup our OT&E [operational test and evaluation] F-35B detachment at Edwards AFB in mid-2014, to be ready for the commencement of Block 2B operational test and evaluation later that year," he says. "Until then our operational aircraft will augment our training aircraft in VMFAT-501 and receive the necessary hardware and software modifications to get them ready for OT&E."

 F-35B pair - Lockheed Martin

© Lockheed Martin

Several F-35Bs are already undergoing test at NAS Patuxent River in Maryland

Operational testing of the stealthy, fifth-generation fighter will be a part of a joint service effort between the USMC, US Air Force, US Navy and foreign partner nations inclduing the Netherlands and the UK.

"JSF operational testing will be part of the Joint Operational Test Team at Edwards AFB," the official says. "The Marine Corps will form an F-35B detachment to join this organization from VMX-22." VMX-22 is the same marine operational test squadron that evaluated the Bell Boeing MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor. The pilots and maintainers at the unit will emphasise expeditionary warfare requirements during F-35B operational testing, the official says.

Source: Flight International