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    Mission X Blasts High into History

    X-35B - U.S. Marine Corp Version of JSF: Joint Strike Fighter Prototype

    Courtesy Photo | Maj. Art Tomassetti, USMC poses in front of the tail section of X-35B, on July 20,...... read more read more



    Story by Diana Devaney 

    F-35 Joint Program Office

    When something is unknown, it has become common to assign it the moniker "X." It can be understood as dangerous, daring, or mysterious because its outcomes are not spelled out.

    On July 20, 2001, Mission X took place over the desert in California during an ongoing competition to choose the next joint strike fighter. One test pilot successfully performed an aviation hat trick: a short takeoff, a level supersonic dash, and a vertical landing in an aircraft named the X-35B.

    While Mission X is a memory to some and a note in the history books for others, the test flight propelled military aviation into a new era of global air dominance. On the same day decades earlier, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin propelled space exploration into a new era when they walked on the moon's surface.

    Over 20 years after Mission X, the X-35 became the F-35 Lightning II, whose fifth-generation capabilities and mission effectiveness are superior to other aircraft. Its combined lethality and interoperability make the F-35 the most requested combat aircraft among U.S. services and international partners. It has delivered over 820 aircraft, with more than 1,695 pilots operating the F-35 and 12,520 maintainers keeping it in the air. As a result, the F-35 is ready to go when needed in today's ever-changing global landscape.

    Retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. Art "Turbo" Tomassetti was the test pilot who completed that critical test flight and is forever attached to the F-35. Turbo graduated from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in December 1997 and began simulator training in Fort Worth, Texas, shortly after. Turbo began his flying career in the AV-8B Harrier II that possessed the similar ability to perform short takeoffs and vertical landings.

    Being a test pilot is risky because the pilots and engineers know that they sometimes are getting into a one-of-a-kind airplane that has only been flying for about a few weeks. As a result, they are going to do things that have never been done, Turbo said in a recent interview with F-35 Joint Program Office staff. The result can allow them to continue their planning and execution, or it can require an overhaul of their strategy and processes up to that point.

    "The ability to know what was going to happen before you got in the airplane was really limited decades ago," said Turbo. "Those test teams had some basic calculations they could do and a little bit of modeling, but they really were finding out things for the first time when they got the airplane flying. Today, we can learn much and do much better in predicting what's going to happen with the capabilities because of advanced modeling and simulation," said Turbo. However, he thinks the exhilaration of being a test pilot still exists during those early flights.

    "The excitement piece was there as a brand-new test pilot because X airplanes don’t happen very often anymore,” he said of being in its cockpit.

    On the morning of Mission X, before the first rays of light could break through the blackness, the elation could be felt as people gathered before the 5 a.m. briefing.

    "As we drove in, we can start to see the glow of the hangar lights; and then as soon as you can get a glimpse of the ground, you can see if the aircraft is outside," explained Turbo, adding that if you can see that the jet is out of the hangar, it was a good sign.

    “With the airplane sitting out, you couldn't miss its tail paint scheme,” Turbo said. “You couldn't miss that visible graphic."

    The red and black graphic featured three playing cards prominently displayed emerging from a top hat – the hat trick.

    In observing all of this, Turbo said he said that’s when he realized not only that the mission was ready to go, but that he was, too.

    After the mission brief that morning with the team of engineers, analysts, and pilots, Turbo made his walk out to the X-35B.

    "The rest of the world just eroded behind me," he said as he performed his traditional walk around the X-35B and patted its nose, which he started doing when he flew combat missions in Operation Desert Storm.

    Turbo explained that four key traits characterized the successful execution of this inaugural flight.

    "To achieve something that's never been done, you need to possess a few characteristics as an individual and as a team," he said. "The first one you need is confidence. You've got to believe that you actually can do what it is you're about to do. A tool we use to build confidence is the simulators, and we practiced the mission in these virtual environments," he explained. "I go out to the airplane with all the confidence I gained from the simulator, which I did extra time in once I learned I'd be flying Mission X."

    According to Turbo, the next characteristic needed was cleverness, or “thinking outside the box.” He said the engineers were clever planners, and the initial stages of the X-35 program were set up so that the test teams had options and alternatives if something went wrong. An example of this thought process was using the C variant of the aircraft to test if the B variant was deemed unusable.

    "There was a plan that if anything went wrong with the X-35B, we could have put that short takeoff propulsion system in the X-35C and continued to go and execute the test program," he said.

    Test pilots are often described as courageous because they are the first to test-drive the aircraft. However, Turbo shared that test pilots also don't want to be unnecessarily daring and dangerous.

    "We want it to be safe. Our families want us to be safe. But at the end of the day, we are going out and doing new things in new jets that do not have a fully developed playbook," he said.

    But Turbo highlighted a different kind of courage during Mission X – the strength to say no when something doesn't look or feel right.

    "On the day of Mission X all parts of the mission went according to plan. Then came the idea to get a little bit more gas in the airplane and then go back and do a vertical takeoff from the hover pad," Turbo said. "There was no requirement in Mission X for the program to demonstrate this capability. But we were in a fly-off with another company building another version of the joint strike fighter and the team wanted to win."

    The engineers told Turbo to be careful when performing the vertical takeoff due to the airplane's lightweight. They warned him he would have excess thrust and controlling his height would be difficult.

    But once cleared to lift off Turbo advanced the throttle and the aircraft just teetered on its landing gear. After a few seconds he brought the power back to idle and checked his instruments. Everything seemed OK inside, and he asked the control room for an evaluation.

    "There's an ego part of me that really wanted to try again and perform this test point," Turbo said. "Control tells me that everything's good to go. My instruments tell me everything is good to go, but I paused. What had just happened wasn’t what was predicted, and no one understood why. And then it took me a while to figure out why, and it wasn't until later when I was reflecting that I understood why, but I said, 'I don't think so, I think we're done for the day,'" he explained.

    "Sometimes you need the courage to say no, when everything inside of you wanted to say yes."

    Turbo said the final characteristic was commitment.

    "We knew that one day we would fly Mission X, but the teams also knew it was going to take a lot of prep and hard work to get there," said Turbo. "My part that day was to fly the airplane to the best of my ability. But it took an incredible team committed to make Mission X a success. Because at the end of the day, a talented group of people designed, built and delivered the aircraft and monitored all the incoming data during the flight to ensure success."

    Turbo later described that a test pilot follows a test plan during a flight. It is part of the protocol, and even though you are amongst the clouds, the pilot stays on course.

    "But there was this point when I was supersonic (speeds exceeding 750 mph) over the desert, where I had to stay straight for about 30 seconds so the control room could collect data," Turbo said.

    “For the first time, in those few seconds, I thought about what this all meant – a couple of decades ago, there was another guy in another airplane flying supersonic over this same patch of desert, and he was doing that for the first time. And here I am in this new airplane, doing it again," he reminisced.

    That "guy," Air Force Capt. Chuck Yeager, was the first person to fly supersonic on October 14, 1947.

    Turbo said his involvement with Mission X greatly influenced him, and it guided him in his future endeavors. He became an F-35 instructor pilot and had the good fortune to teach the first 12 Marines to fly the aircraft. One habit Turbo said he developed with his students was getting to their aircraft before they exited the cockpit upon landing, in order to see the expressions on their faces.

    “Each Marine had a smile,” said Turbo “I knew at that point that, not only did I think the F-35 was good, but pretty much everybody who got in it and flew it thought it was good. You can have airplane A, B, or C in some cases, and when we see everyone keep picking F-35, that has to tell you something," he said, while agreeing that being part of Mission X is one of the most rewarding experiences he has ever had.

    Turbo has secured his place in the F-35's legacy. Because of confidence, cleverness, courage, and commitment, the F-35 is the most lethal, survivable, and connected aircraft in the world today and for the next 50 years.



    Date Taken: 07.19.2022
    Date Posted: 07.20.2022 09:37
    Story ID: 425283
    Location: ARLINGTON, VA, US 

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