A half dozen F-35Bs are deployed aboard the USS Wasp for Operational Test phase one of shipboard F-35 trials and the first order of business was to test the F-35B and its pilots ability to operate from a Gator Navy flattop in the dark of night.

Each pilot had to takeoff and land aboard the Wasp four times at night in order for the test to be considered a success. During which, they could not use the aircraft’s advanced electro-optical and night vision systems to do so. Instead, they had to rely on a more traditional sensor for making a successful landing, the unaided human eye.

Maj. Michael H. Rountree Jr. who is the senior landing signal officer (LSO) for OT-1 and assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501, explains:

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“We use the night pattern for unaided recovery... We are not approved to use the night vision camera, or distributed aperture system in the ship environment yet. We are simply using the naked eye to get us onto the ship. We fly an approach that funnels us into a good position to take over and land the jet visually... I went out there for the first time to fly at night and everything went smoothly... With the controls and interface between the pilot and aircraft so seamless and the task loading so low, this aircraft is really a joy and a pleasure to fly.”

You can get an idea of just how easy the F-35B is to control during vertical flight mode in the video below:

There is little doubt that the F-35B’s amazing avionics and its ability to automatically hang in mid air without the traditional ‘balancing act’ that AV-8B Harrier pilots have had to to master for decades to achieve similar results should make the F-35B a much more docile aircraft to operate from the boat. Although, it would be interesting to know how much work it would take to see the Harrier upgraded with a digital flight control system that can offer the same simplicity of operation as the F-35B. Although, actually doing so wouldn’t make much sense now as investing in a platform that will be retired in the not so distant future makes little sense. Still, pairing such a capability with the Harrier, even later in its operational life, may have been able to save lives and aircraft.

Regardless of the F-35B’s incredible ability to take the traditional flying workload off the pilot’s shoulders, night flight operations aboard the tight confines of a Helicopter Landing Dock is a dangerous affair. Communication and situational awareness are key for all those involved as risk is greatly increased when compared to daytime operations.

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Considering that this is the first time the F-35B will be operating from the deck using its short takeoff and vertical landing capability in an operational manner, the unknown is a major factor as well and things can go very wrong very quickly when you are talking about a still largely experimental 20 ton fighter jet hovering on a pillar of air above a steel deck with people working nearby.

Sgt. Daniel Beaston, a mechanic with VMFAT-501, describes how different night can be from day when it comes to operating a $150M+ fighter jet from a couple acres of steel floating in the middle of the ocean.

“At nighttime, you have a lot more risk, so safety is paramount. You must constantly keep your head on a swivel and be especially watchful. It is also important to maintain communication between yourself and the pilot... The smallest breakdown in communication at night can be extremely disastrous and everything can become complicated.”

The F-35 will continue its OT-1 ship trials as the USMC marches closer to declaring the jet operationally capable this summer. We will keep you updated as to how these potentially volatile tests aboard the USS Wasp continue to advance.

Source and photos via DoD


Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.