NAVAL AIR SYSTEMS COMMAND, PATUXENT RIVER, Md.– A first round of shipboard testing off the West Coast in January demonstrated that a team effort to increase warfighter capability by adding nighttime landing support for U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) F-35B flight operations on LHA(R) America-class Amphibious Assault ships succeeded brilliantly.

The Chief of Naval Operations Director for Expeditionary Warfare (OPNAV N95) and the Marine Corps in July 2021 determined the need to prepare Spot 9 on the aft flight deck as a second Unaided Night Landing Spot for the F-35B Lightning II.

The F-35B is the short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the fifth-generation fighter.  The need for a second landing spot arose when the introduction of F-35B air operations to LHA(R) vessels risked overheating the flight deck. The F-35B is the short takeoff vertical landing variant of the fifth-generation fighter.

PACIFIC OCEAN (Jan. 19, 2022) — An F-35B Lightning II attached to Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron (VMX) 1 idles on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli (LHA 7) during night flight operations Jan, 19. Tripoli is underway conducting routine operations in U.S. 3rd Fleet. U.S. Navy photo

With coordination, efficiency, and teamwork, Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), OPNAV N95, the Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment Program Office (PMA-251), Program Executive Office for Tactical Aircraft (PEO (T)), Program Executive Office for Ships (PEO Ships), and the Amphibious Warfare Program Office (PMS-377), the Patuxent River F-35 Integrated Test Force (ITF), and Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron (VMX) 1, successfully began testing just six months after plan approval.

VMX-1 was able to provide West Coast aircraft to support piloted qualitative evaluation of six proposed lighting configurations. VMX-1 also provided an Operational Test Pilot and a Test Landing Signal Officer to direct recoveries to Spot 9 for the night unaided lighting evaluation, while using the Joint Precision Approach Landing System guidance referenced to Spot 9 to aid the pilots’ recovery.

Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 F-35 ITF provided two STOVL Developmental Test Pilots to support the lighting evaluation and an F-35B carrier suitability subject matter expert.

After completing day and night carrier qualifications, the three test pilots were able to complete the night lighting assessment in two night-flight periods, as well as demonstrate a 2-minute separation recovery to Spot 7 then Spot 9, explained Ron Hess, VX-23 F-35 ITF Basing and Ship Suitability Lead.

“This was the capability the F-35B carrier fleet needs,” Hess said.

Hess served as the embarked carrier suitability subject matter expert for the testing. He provided technical support to guide the evaluation and collect the required aircraft data to recommend a fleet flight clearance for night unaided landings to Spot 9. 

Ready to the test

ALRE’s Electro-Optical Integrated Product Team (IPT) got right to work on OPNAV N95 and PMS-377’s summer 2021 request that the team study, develop and evaluate advanced flight deck lighting to support the F-35B and illuminate LHA/LHD Spot 9.

ALRE brought forth a solution that included new lighting components as well as Advanced Flight Deck Lights currently in use throughout the fleet.

With cooperation from OPNAV N95 and PMS-377, Navy Capt. Kenneth Sterbenz, ALRE program manager, approved funding for the ALRE effort in September 2021.

With an approved plan and funding, the ALRE Electro-Optical Integrated IPT completed preliminary work, which included a combination of flight simulation, shipboard evaluation, and Engineering Change Proposal efforts.

The combined teams originally planned shipboard testing in March, but an opportunity to expedite the project presented itself; USS Tripoli (LHA 7) had test events planned for mid-January and ship leaders agreed to accommodate the Spot 9 lighting testing.

Joe DeLorenzo, ALRE Electro-Optical AFDL IPT lead, said the timeline was the biggest hurdle to the collective team, but everyone involved understood the urgency of the project and did everything in their power to make the January testing possible.

“When we plan test events, it usually takes us 18 months or so to prepare a plan and ensure we won’t interrupt the ship’s operations,” said DeLorenzo. “It was a huge challenge because there was so much to coordinate: engineering new lighting systems and brackets, procuring new parts, producing documentation, and working through the Ship Change Documents process to get the equipment and teams on ship. This time we were looking at a matter of months.”

Walter Olt, Marine Aviation ALRE Deputy Program Manager, said the success of January’s testing relied on aggressive planning, hard work and coordination.

“We were able to do the unthinkable,” said Olt, speaking of the hard work and coordination. “We went from a simulated concept to a fully-installed evaluation system in four months, and in doing so proved we can secure nighttime JSF flight operations with the Spot 9 unaided lighting system.”

With the first round of testing behind them, ALRE will use the testing results to engineer a final solution.

Future Spot 9 testing will include ALRE teams installing lighting systems on all LHA and LHD class ships, as well as at test and training sites. N95 and the Marine Corps identified the USS Boxer (LHD 4) as the first to receive a complete set up for Spot 9 landings in 2024.

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