VFA-101 Ushers in New Era

Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Tabert, assigned to the VFA-101 Grim Reapers, prepares to fly the squadron’s first F-35C Lightning II local sortie on 14 August. (Photos courtesy of Lockheed Martin)
Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Tabert, assigned to the VFA-101 Grim Reapers, prepares to fly the squadron’s first F-35C Lightning II local sortie on 14 August. (Photos courtesy of Lockheed Martin)

Naval Aviation ushered in a new era when “Gunfighter 11” touched down at Eglin AFB, Fla. on 22 June. Gunfighter 11, designated as aircraft 101, was the air traffic control call sign of the Navy’s first F-35C Lightning II as it made its ferry flight from the Lockheed Martin plant in Fort Worth, Texas to the VFA-101 Grim Reaper’s hangar at Eglin AFB.

VFA-101 PatchTwo days after Gunfighter 11’s arrival, aircraft 102 also arrived from the Fort Worth plant. In addition to a brief modification period, both aircraft were immediately put into service for joint technical data verification, the maintenance publication for the F-35. Prior to VFA-101 receiving an interim safe-for-flight clearance, standard maintenance procedures had to be checked and verified. Everything from a simple daily turnaround between flights to the complete removal and reinstallation of an engine must be reviewed to ensure that each step is included in the publication.

VFA-101 was granted their interim safe-for-flight clearance on 8 August, and flew their first local sortie on 14 August. In granting this clearance, Commander, Naval Air Forces (CNAF) VADM David Buss said, “the Lightning II strike fighter represents the future business end of our nuclear-powered aircraft carrier force, the embarked carrier air wing. The men and women of VFA-101 are now cleared to take the first steps toward that future as they operate these amazing Navy aircraft and train the aviators who will fly them.”

Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Tabert was the first VFA-101 pilot to fly a local sortie at Eglin AFB in an F-35C. Tabert is the squadron NATOPS officer, the F-35C model manager, and a former F-35 test pilot at NAS Patuxent River, Md. The sortie was an operational checkflight, which is a requirement for any F-35C that hasn’t flown in more than 30 days. Although Tabert has flown all three variants of the F-35 on a variety of test missions, he noted that his first local F-35C sortie was different.

Gunfighter 11 makes its ferry flight to the VFA-101 Grim Reapers hangar at Eglin AFB.
Gunfighter 11 makes its ferry flight to the VFA-101 Grim Reapers hangar at Eglin AFB.

“This flight was the first flight which was essentially a prerequisite to begin our training syllabus,” he said. “Without successfully completing this flight, we can’t begin to spin up our core group of instructors.”
“The first flight of Grim Reaper 102 is the culmination of many years hard work and planning by the Sailors of VFA-101 and our Lockheed Martin partners and is an exciting first step in introducing the Navy’s first 5th generation fighter to fleet,” said Capt. John Enfield, the squadron’s commanding officer at the time of the milestone flight. “Now that we’re flying, we will be able to validate and evaluate both the pilot and maintainer syllabi as we train the initial cadre of instructors.”

Tabert is the first qualified F-35C instructor pilot at VFA-101, and the first student he had the opportunity to instruct was Enfield, who completed his first flight on 15 August. Cmdr. John Allison, VFA-101’s operations officer, and the rest of the Grim Reapers’ cadre of instructors will soon begin the flying portion of the syllabus to become qualified F-35C instructor pilots, easing the workload for Tabert.

Gunfighter 11 at Eglin
An F-35 Lightning II dubbed “Gunfighter 11” flies from the Lockheed Martin plant in Fort Worth, Texas to the squadron’s hangar at Eglin AFB on 22 June. (Photos courtesy of Lockheed Martin)

Prior to completing these flights, each prospective F-35C pilot must complete the ground portion of the syllabus at Eglin AFB’s Academic Training Center (ATC). The ATC conducts ground school and simulator training for Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps aviators learning to fly their respective variants of the F-35. In the case of Navy students, Chief of Naval Air Training has approved an F-35A (the U.S. Air Force’s conventional takeoff and landing variant) academic and simulator syllabus with F-35C differences as a valid training pipeline to fly the F-35C. The first group of pilots completed this syllabus in February, and are now awaiting the arrival of their first aircraft so that they can begin the flying portion of their syllabus.

Although there are many steps yet to take before the first F/A-18 squadron transitions to the F-35C, the first steps on that journey have been taken. VFA-101 is ushering in a new generation in Naval Aviation, and all eyes are looking towards the future.

Lt. Liggett is the operations officer for VFA-101.