The third and final round of F-35B shipboard testing wrapped up Sunday after the 5th-generation aircraft completed a number of key "firsts"--including live ordnance operations aboard ship and full weapons load tests.
The three-week developmental test round began in late October aboard the amphibious assault ship America, off the coast of San Diego. The America, the Navy's newest amphibious ship, is also the first to be built without a well deck, creating more aircraft storage space for the F-35 on future deployments.
In one of the final tests, the aircraft tested out the full "envelope" of its external weapons load capabilities using real ordnance Nov. 16. According to a news release from the America, the ship's weapons department assembled 72 laser-guided Guide Bomb Units (GBU-) 12 and 40 satellite-guided GBU-32 for the test, a first for the ship. As part of the test, the ship searched out choppy seas and subpar weather conditions to observe how the plane would handle when loaded down with thousands of pounds of ordnance.
"As we all know, we can't choose the battle and the location of the battle, so sometimes we have to go into rough seas with heavy swells, heave, roll, pitch, and crosswinds," Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Andy Edgell, an F-35 test pilot embedded at the Pax River F-35 Integrated Test Force, said in a statement. "The last couple of days we went and purposely found those nasty conditions and put the jets through those places, and the jet handled fantastically well. So now the external weapons testing should be able to give the fleet a clearance to carry weapons with the rough seas and rough conditions. We know the jet can handle it. A fleet clearance will come -- then they can go forth and conduct battle in whatever environment."
After the bombs were built and loaded, aircraft and test pilots from Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron 1 completed two days of live weapons testing, dropping six GBU-12s on a live-weapons range in Yuma, Arizona, according to the release.
"I am amazed at the level at which our ordnance team was able to increase their proficiency in building bombs," Lt. Cmdr. Todd Blackman, weapons officer for the America, said in a statement. "This was our 'ordies' first real build of bombs on USS America, and when the call came to begin building, it took them on average of three hours to build four bombs. In a matter of days, their time decreased to one hour to get the bombs out."
The Marine Corps' first operational F-35 squadron, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121, is now gearing up to deploy forward to Japan in January in preparation for a shipboard deployment aboard the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit in the Pacific.