The F-35 has rightfully been called not just an evolutionary fighter but a revolutionary aircraft. That’s because it is bringing capabilities to the fore that haven’t ever been available in previous generations of fighter aircraft.
That, of course, means rethinking how the aircraft is flown and deployed. Not only does that require the pilot’s culture to change, but also that of the planners.
The USMC will deploy the STVOL version of the F-35, the F-35B. But they’re already using some rare experience with the F-22 to help level out the learning curve necessary for deploying the F-35B in support of Marine Corps operations:
The USMC, having anticipated that the transition to the fifth-generation F-35B could be difficult, asked the USAF to allow one of its aviators to experience the Raptor's transition training, operational testing and tactics development pipelines. The USAF agreed to the USMC's request, and Berke spent four years flying with many of the best fighter pilots the air force has to offer.
"The Marine Corps sent Lt Col "Chip" Berke to an F-22 exchange tour with the air force three years ago with a very specific purpose in mind," says former USMC deputy commandant for aviation Lt Gen George Trautman. "Because fifth-generation essentially changes everything, we wanted to expose one of our best aviators to the clear operational edge the F-22 has over all legacy strike fighters."
Lt Gen Trautman gets it. He understands the size and significance of the coming positive changes the F-35B will bring to the Marine Corps use of its organic fighter contingent. The F-22 experience will allow Lt. Col Berke to apply the lessons learned from his F-22 experience to the future deployment of the F-35B.
Berke says that the USMC stands to gain enormously from the leveraging the USAF's experience with the Raptor.
"That is a challenging experience and the air force had a lot of lessons learned," Berke says. "The design was to take what I had learned and help the Marine Corps stand up its initial training squadron and de facto prepare for the initial operations and tactics development down the road."
Berke, who is one flight away from becoming qualified as an F-35B pilot, says that the F-22 and F-35, while not designed for the same mission, share a number of common characteristics. The focus for the USMC is on what is similar between the two aircraft.
"The processes to prepare a pilot to perform in that aircraft are very similar," Berke says. "While there are some unique characteristic that the two aircraft don't share, the preponderance of those things in terms of how the pilot interfaces with this fifth-gen platform are very similar."
That is where the pilot culture must change. Berke’s experience will help shape the Marine Corps’ pilot training for the F-35B to advance that change. As for the similarities between the two 5th generation aircraft:
The most obvious similarities are that both aircraft incorporate sensor fusion, where data from multiple different systems such as the radar, electronic warfare systems, infrared cameras and data-link are correlated and displayed to the pilot as a single, easy to understand picture. By contrast, in fourth-generation fighters like the Lockheed F-16 or Boeing F/A-18, both of which Berke has previously flown, sensor data must be fused inside the pilot's brain. "That concept was pioneered by the F-22," Berke says. "The concept of how that fusion-information is presented to the pilot is very similar between the two aircraft."
And that fusion, of course, is one of the ‘revolutionary’ aspects of both 5th generation fighters.
Addressing the pilot culture, Berke notes the changes necessary to take full advantage of the F-35’s capabilities:
Perhaps the biggest change from the fourth to the fifth-generation fighters is the change in mentality that accompanies the transition. Pilots have to think in an entirely different way in the two fifth-generation machines. "The concept of becoming a fifth-gen aviator applies to both the F-22 and F-35 equally," Berke says. "That's a difficult transition. It takes a little bit of time to get used to that."
That’s where Berke’s experience and input will help the Marine Corps. And that’s already paying off:
The process to get those USMC aviators ready for operations at VMFA-121 will be very similar to what the USAF does with the F-22 at nearby Tyndall AFB, Florida. "Unlike most other aircraft, the F-22 and F-35 have to prepare a pilot to fly solo on day one," Berke says. "The F-22 has been doing that for quite some time and we've leveraged a lot of that experience."
Because the F-35 is so new and is constantly receiving new software upgrades, VMFAT-501 has developed courses for pilots to transition from one avionics software block to another relatively painlessly. The squadron's instructors have also developed courses to allow new pilots to transition directly to the newest configuration, Berke says.
Berke's experience should also help the USMC's operational testers as they begin their conversion to the F-35B. The US Navy and USMC use a somewhat different process for operational test and tactics development than the USAF. But elements of the USAF's methodology might be useful to the naval services as they move toward deploying the F-35.
That sort of planning based on leveraging Berke’s experience is invaluable in correctly tailoring the USMC’s F-35 training to ensure the transition is as painless and complete as possible. It also addresses the pilot culture. As is obvious, Berke and the Marine Corps leadership see the F-35B as a game changer. And it appears they’ve hit upon a plan to be able to develop and deploy those game changing capabilities as soon as possible.