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The Marine Corps’ Green Knights of VMFA-121 are the first operational unit flying F-35B Lightning II jets, and are setting the stage for deployment of this revolutionary vertical-lift aircraft.

For the United States Marine Corps, tactical aviation exists for one primary reason – to support Marines on the ground.

Often first to the scene of a conflict, the expeditionary Marine Corps must travel light, travel fast and travel wherever they are needed. There may be no runway nearby for their combat jets, nor the time to deploy an aircraft carrier.

This explains the Marine Corps’ keen interest in the F-35B Lightning II aircraft. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121, based at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, is the first operational unit equipped with the advanced, stealthy, vertical lift jets.

“The reason the F-35B is so important is we can base almost anywhere,” says Lt Col Steve Gillette, Commanding Officer of the squadron. “You don’t need the infrastructure of a long runway to operate.”

This is due to the F-35B’s innovative Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) technology, enabling the aircraft to take-off and land in austere forward-deployed environments, as well as amphibious ships and US Navy carriers.

“You can put these aeroplanes in many places and that puts your adversaries in a very difficult position,” explains Gillette.


The STOVL capability comes thanks to the unique Rolls-Royce LiftSystem®, which makes short take-off and vertical landings possible. The LiftSystem includes a centre-mounted LiftFan™ and downward swivelling rear nozzle, with flight stabilisation via a ducted roll post under each wing. The LiftFan is connected to the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine via a shaft and high-speed clutch developed by Rolls-Royce.

Together, the LiftSystem components provide more than 40,000lbs of downward thrust, and are activated by one-button operation in the cockpit.

In the air, Gillette says the aircraft is user friendly, reducing pilots’ workload to enable them to focus on the mission at hand. The aircraft’s computerised flight controls, as well as data fusion from on-board sensors, ease demands on the pilot.

“The aeroplane is incredibly easy to fly. It was designed that way on purpose. The thing that makes the difference is the amount and quality of data available to the pilot. It’s hugely different than prior aircraft.”

“In the F-35, all those sensors are active all the time and fusion puts them together. I just tell it what’s important to me, and it goes and does it. That frees up a lot of brain power and thought processes for mission execution. That’s what F-35 fusion gives you,” he says.

The result: the best situational awareness available, which is the number one priority for any fighter pilot.

He also credits the LiftSystem for its ease of operation, reliability and predictable flight characteristics.

“The propulsion system has worked without a glitch. We have not had one problem with it while airborne. From a reliability and predictability standpoint, we have had great success so far. From a pilot’s perspective, it’s very stable in the hover, very predictable. The LiftSystem, and all the software that drives the system; all of that works very well.”


The Marine Corps aircraft maintainers say the F-35B’s propulsion system is ‘way easier’ to work on compared to the Harrier’s technology.

“The engine and LiftFan work like a gem,” says Staff Sgt Joshua LeMaster. “We haven’t had any maintenance issues. The LiftSystem is a pretty solid product.”

Thus far, nine VMFA-121 pilots, including Lt Col Gillette, have been qualified for STOVL operations on the F-35B aircraft. The squadron now has a total of 16 pilots and a full complement of 17 aircraft, since the unit ‘stand up’ in 2013. In addition to flight training, the squadron has also demonstrated success in its planning and maintenance activities, and documenting inspections, managing data and preparation of the jets for operations.

“We basically got 100 per cent on the test. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of that happening on any unit,” says Gillette.

Vertical evolution

Marine Corps pilot says the new F-35B simplifies vertical flight operations

Marine Corps Capt Jack “Norm” Cronan learned his vertical landing skills at the controls of a Harrier AV-8B and says: “I will always have a soft spot for the old AV-8B, a fondness for the aircraft.”

But his new aircraft – an F-35B Lightning II – is far superior. “You press the conversion button, the jet converts, and you’re in STOVL mode.” A slight nudge of the throttle or the control stick is all that is required from that point. The aircraft’s computerised control system does most of the work.

“You’re still flying the jet but you’re monitoring what the jet is doing,” he says. “Once you’re over the (landing) pad, you hit the TRC – Translation Rate Control – button and the jet will lock that position into place. You could take your hands off the controls, and the jet will stay in that particular position. To land, all you do is push the stick forward and monitor the jet.”

And that’s one of the main advantages of this new advanced jet, with its stealth, supersonic speed, superior electronics and STOVL capabilities: “The jet is doing a lot of the work for you.”