A half-dozen F-35Bs just landed on the deck of the USS Wasp (LHD-1) to begin the first shipboard phase of their operational trials. For the next two weeks, the six jets will prove they can operate aboard a Gator Navy Flattop under real-world conditions similar to those the jet will face during its operational lifespan.
No less than five squadrons will be involved in this portion of the F-35B’s operational testing. These include Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 and 501, as well as Marine Test and Evaluation Squadron 22. Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 13 and 31 will also play a crucial role to see if these new jets continue operating throughout this critical evaluation phase.
Dubbed OT-1, the testing will including operating the F-35B during a wide array of flight deck scenarios, including day and night operations, while flying in various configurations. It will also assess the jet’s connectivity with the ship’s communications and data systems, the landing signal officer’s new software tailored for the F-35B, as well as all types of maintenance scenarios. There will also be the loading and unloading of weapons on and off the jets as it operates at sea.
Beyond testing the jets themselves, this period at sea will also be used to assess what other modifications will need to be made to the USS Wasp and other helicopter landing ships in order to support the jet during its operational career. This has been a sensitive topic as the F-35’s hot exhaust has proven to be very abrasive to the decks of all existing ships that could accommodate it.
The sea trials phase comes as the F-35 program office is looking to declare the USMC’s version of the jet operational this summer, even though it will be stripped of many of its capabilities and its software and testing will remain deep in development.
Operating from a ship with a contingent of six aircraft under conditions they have never faced is a challenging event that has its risks. Even though the F-35B has been to the ship before on multiple occasions it has never been pushed like how it will be during OT-1.
The F-35 program hopes that this evaluation period will go just as well as the F-35C’s initial boat trials a few months ago, although that event was far less complex than this one and only included two jets. The Navy’s F-35C operational test trials remain years away.
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