Yuma -- Aviation ordnance crew members with Marine Aviation and Weapons Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1) conducted the first ever hot load of the F-35B at MCAS-Yuma, Ariz., on Sept. 22, 2016, with inert Guided Bomb Units-12, aerial laser-guided bombs. In doing so, the Marine Corps is the first service to validate hot loading any variant of the F-35.
Capt. John Valdez, ordnance officer, MAWTS-1, is responsible for supervising all aviation ordnance operations conducted on all type/model/series aircraft during the Weapons and Tactics Instructors Course (WTI) held on a semi-annual basis at MCAS-Yuma. He describes hot loading as loading ordnance on the aircraft while the pilot is onboard and the engines are running, and he has been involved in developing a hot load procedure for the F-35B for many years.
According to Valdez, being able to hot load the F-35B provides the Marine Corps with a capability to project Marine air power forward on the battlefield while decreasing aircraft turnaround time and increasing sortie generation for two reasons.
Due to the aircraft not having to power down, cool off and start up again, the time spent reloading an F-35B is essentially halved from an estimated maximum rearm time of 40 minutes down to 20 minutes. While 20 minutes less on the ground may not seem like much for a single aircraft, Valdez points to campaigns, like Operation Iraqi Freedom, where multiple aircraft were constantly in need of rearming, noting that the shorter rearm time can add up to weeks of man hours saved over the course of a campaign.
Secondly, an aircraft is most likely to malfunction during its initial power up, requiring time offline for repairs. If an aircraft only has to power up once during the day, the likelihood that something will malfunction during its scheduled operational window is significantly reduced. The maintenance time saved from an aircraft not breaking down is invaluable, asserted Valdez.
He adds that validating the hot load procedure for the F-35B “is critical in developing the expeditionary capabilities” of the F-35B due to the projected reduction in wear and tear on the aircraft. He is eager to see this process employed through the full service life of the aircraft, a sharp contrast with the development of the F-18 hot load procedure which started more than 20 years after it was first put into service — around the same time the Marine Corps took possession of its first F-35B.
While the maintenance benefits are clear, Valdez acknowledged that there are safety concerns which arise during a hot load that do not exist during a cold load, specifically the possibility that something will get sucked into the jet engine’s intake. He emphasizes that after many dry run-throughs, consultations, evaluations and re-evaluations over several years with many different subject matter experts, including those from the military and private sector, appropriate safeguards have been incorporated into the hot load procedure to protect both the ordnance crew and the pilot inside the aircraft. For instance, while current publications require personnel on the ground to stay at least three feet away from the intake, the F-35B hot load procedure mandates at least six feet from the intake, a doubling of the current minimum requirements.
He also argues that hot loading the F-35B is in fact safer and easier than hot loading other aircraft, such as the AV-8B Harrier. A hot load for a Harrier requires two ordnance crews working in tandem to load bombs at the same time on either side of the aircraft; if the timing is off, the Harrier can be damaged if the loaded side tilts down and hits the ground. In contrast, the F-35B has two centralized bomb bays which are very stable and can be loaded by a single ordnance crew. The danger of destabilization during an F-35B hot load simply does not exist as it does with the AV-8B Harrier.
Valdez incorporated the hot load event into WTI 1-17 as part of MAWTS-1 Instructor Pilot Tactics Development, and drew support from maintenance and ordnance Marines from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121), also known as the Green Knights. Valdez had high praises for the VMFA-121 Marines involved in Wednesday’s demonstration, stating that the VMFA-121’s expertise with the F-35B is simply “unmatched in the Marine Corps,” and therefore using them was absolutely critical to Wednesday’s successful evolution.
He was also quick to share his respect for Master Sgt. Jason Daniel, ordnance chief, MAWTS-1, who has been with the F-35 program since its inception. They first met while serving with Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 (VMFAT-501), where Valdez was first inspired to develop a way to hot load the F-35B. Valdez calls Daniel, “the most experienced ordnanceman in the Marine Corps on the F-35B,” and admits that he jumped at the chance to task him with drafting and refining the hot load procedures when MSgt Daniel joined transferred from VMFA-121 to MAWTS-1. In particular, he credits Daniel with ensuring that lessons learned from dropping bombs from the VMFA-121 aircraft were applied to the current procedures, and making necessary changes to update the original draft first written at VMFAT-501.
Once the F-35B hot load process is validated, the procedures will be published and distributed throughout the Marine Corps, at which point training will be conducted at the squadron level and at command discretion. However, Valdez plans to offer three days of cold load training followed by one day of hot load training prior to future WTIs, under his supervision, which he hopes personnel from units outside of MCAS-Yuma will be able to take advantage of.
Going forward, MAWTS-1 will make itself “available to anyone out in the Fleet who requires training or who wants training or guidance in terms of preparation, scheme of maneuver, lessons learned, so on and so forth” promised Capt Valdez. “That’s what MAWTS-1 does: we help the Fleet develop these new tactics.”
Col. James Wellons, Commanding Officer, MAWTS-1, noted that they could not have completed this effort without the support of MCAS Yuma and VMX-1, as they have been heavily involved in all aspects of the operational testing of the F-35B.