By Joe DellaVedova
An Italian Air Force (Aeronautica Militare) F-35A Lightning II aircraft, called “AL-1,” completed its first transatlantic crossing, arriving at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, from Cameri Air Base, Italy, Feb. 5.
The two-phase deployment across the North Atlantic to the United States required a total of 13 flight hours and was enabled by an Italian Air Force KC-767 aerial refueling tanker, which refueled AL-1 seven times during the ocean crossing.
The aircraft, which only had 15 flight hours before its pioneer flight, was the first international jet fully built overseas at the Cameri Final Assembly & Check-Out (FACO) facility.
“This was the greatest experience of my whole life,” said Italian Air Force F-35 pilot Maj. Gian Marco D., who piloted AL-1 across with only 50 F-35 flight hours of experience. Gian Marco completed training at Luke Air Force Base (AFB), Arizona, last November. “The aircraft was safe all of the time and able to fulfill the mission. We never had an issue,” Gian Marco said.
AL-1 departed Cameri, near Milan, Feb. 3 and flew the first leg of its journey with an Italian tanker and Typhoon escort aircraft to Lajes Air Base, the Azores, Portugal. After a weather delay enroute, AL-1 and the KC-767 tanker continued onward to Patuxent River, landing the afternoon of Feb. 5.
“The efficiency and reliability of the aircraft has been 100 percent,” Gian Marco said. “I’m extremely honored to be part of this team, along with my F-35 program teammates who contributed to our success.”
The aircraft will begin three months of electromagnetic environmental effects (E3) evaluation and certification while at Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Divisions Integrated Battlespace Simulation and Test facility.
After completing E3 testing, AL-1 will join the F-35 international pilot training fleet at Luke AFB in May, the first of five F-35s Italy has committed to the international training fleet there. The next group of Italian pilots will start training at Luke in March with U.S. and other foreign students in the multi-national training program.
AL-1’s arrival in the United States demonstrates the Italian industry’s capability to build and sustain a fifth-generation fighter, an achievement made possible through the close partnership between U.S. and Italian governments and defense leadership.
The Italian FACO—owned by the Italian Ministry of Defense and operated by Finmeccanica-Aeronautics in conjunction with Lockheed Martin Aeronautics—has a current workforce of more than 1,100 Italian personnel engaged in F-35 aircraft and wing production.
FACO will build all Italian F-35 aircraft, is programmed to build F-35As for the Royal Netherlands Air Force, and retains the capacity to deliver to other European partners in the future.
Italy is now ready to start the next process, the phase-in of the Italian fleet, which will see the first F-35 landing at the newly renovated Amendola Air Base, near Manfredonia, Italy, home of the 32nd Wing before the end of this year.
Three distinct variants of the F-35 will replace the F-16 Fighting Falcon and A/OA-10 Thunderbolt II for the U.S. Air Force; the F/A-18 Hornet for the U.S. Navy; the F/A-18 and AV-8B Harrier for the U.S. Marine Corps; and a variety of fighters for at least 10 other countries. Following the U.S. Marine Corps’ July 2015 combat-ready initial operational capability (IOC) declaration, the U.S. Air Force will attain IOC the summer of 2016 and the U.S. Navy intends to attain IOC in 2018.
Joe DellaVedova is the public affairs director of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office in Washington, D.C.
Behind the Stick: Q&A with “Ninja”
Italian Air Force test pilot Maj. Gian Marco D., also known as “Ninja,” is the first pilot to fly an F-35 across the ocean, a feat he achieved using the first F-35 built overseas.
After the two-phase transatlantic flight from Cameri Air Base, Italy, which ended at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, “Ninja” discussed his journey and what he sees as the way ahead for the F-35 program with reporters.
“We started from Cameri. We had bad weather. For the first day, we went from Cameri to Lajes Air Force Base in the Azores via Palma de Mallorca. This was the first time the F-35 had landed in Portugal. We had to wait out the weather for a day and then flew the 2,000-plus miles past St. Johns to Halifax to the Boston area and then we arrived in Maryland.
For safety and security reasons, we had four air refuelings during this second leg, and given how bad the weather was, the fourth refueling was done close to Pax River.
We had to go through a cold front and heavy headwinds (120 knots).”
You flew in formation and through heavy clouds, we understand? We had five aircraft total, and kept tight formation, and refueled in the clouds as well. We had two C-130s just in case, the tanker, a Typhoon headed to Red Flag and the F-35.
Did you hand fly the plane to stay in formation? The plane is very reliable, and I hand flew some times, but auto pilot handled a great deal of the flight.
What about the air refueling events? We had 100 percent success even in the clouds. The big thing here is that the plane is very stable and reliable with no problems.
This is the first F-35 built on a new assembly line. Did that come into play in your calculations in flying the aircraft?
We did 15 flight hours with AL-1 prior to crossing the Atlantic and we had no issues, and I mean NO issues … We flew the jet five times back-to-back to back-to-back prior to coming. I don’t think that has ever been done before as well.
How many flight hours do you have on the F-35? About 50 real flight hours. I was formerly a Tornado pilot in the reconnaissance role and then became a test pilot.
After the testing here, what is next for the jet? We will take the first two aircraft to Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. Then in a few months will bring additional aircraft to Luke. This summer we will ferry number 4 and 5 to give us a full complement of five at Luke. All the student pilots at Luke fly the aircraft in the fleet whether U.S., Australian, Norwegian or Italian.
And the training allows us to learn common [tactics, training and procedures] from the ground up. We are building a fifth-generation approach from the ground up.
When you sat in the F-35 cockpit and flew across the Atlantic, how did the various systems assist you in the flight? The great thing about the F-35 is that the human-machine interface (HMI) is so good and so built around the pilot that you don’t have to learn how it works, you just use it. You can configure the screens to fit the mission. The aircraft is built to understand; you are building a strategy, not focusing on managing the sensors or really focused on the flying function.
I was able to see the aircraft surrounding me through the clouds, such as keeping distance with my tankers by using my helmet and the Distributed Aperture System and see the C-130s below me below the clouds.
Did you have any problems with your helmet? No. I used the Gen II helmet and the Gen III has improved the helmet, but my helmet worked flawlessly during the flight. I was able to fulfill the mission and I am here.
How different is flying the Tornado compared to the F-35? How can you answer and be polite? There is no comparison. Recently, I flew the Tornado after learning to fly the F-35. It was a real shock to go back in time. I had to move my head and focus on the switches and sensors—you have to manage the aircraft to fly. The F-35 is totally different.
Let’s make no mistake about it, this is an historic day in which an Italian flew the first F-35A Italian assembled aircraft. How does that feel from an Italian point of view? It feels great. It is a different mindset. We are working at a different level than we have done in the past.
We are making history. We are building it, we are flying it, we are maintaining it. We talk about facts. I am a pilot. We have flown all these flight hours with no problems; we are living a new reality. The aircraft is extremely reliable. We are close to 50,000 flight hours with the aircraft. That is a fact.
How was the airplane ergonomically? The seat is very comfortable; you can stretch your legs in front of you. The helmet was comfortable, and the seat was very supportable and comfortable. With this helmet, I do not have to turn my head, which makes it easier as well for the pilot.
This plane is designed to drop bombs and fire missiles. What can you see going forward with regard to weapons training? According to the experience I’ve built up in this field, during the simulator training on this jet, I can tell you that the system connection to the weapons management is so innovative and advanced that the pilot is able to handle it safely and with confidence from the very early stages of training. ”We have two air-to-air pilots working with air-to-ground pilots and merging the cultures. You are not focusing on your sensors; you are focusing on the end objective of your mission.
The big difference with this aircraft is situational awareness. You see everything, and I mean on the surface and on the ground and your command attack, defense and electronic warfare functions within the aircraft.
The [human-machine interface] is processing this and allowing you to be more strategic in your role.
You have different screens and different set ups that we are using as we fly the aircraft, and over time we can help the pilots standardize ways to use the two screens optimally.
I hand flew because I wanted to play with the screens and figure out how to make best use of the systems during flight.
Transcript adapted from full interview.