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  • [plane engine roaring]

  • This is the F-35B Lightning II.

  • The Marine Corps' multi-role fighter jet

  • is equipped with the most advanced sensor suite

  • of any fighter in history --

  • [plane engine roaring]

  • and the most powerful engine

  • of any jet in the world,

  • which can reach a top speed

  • of 1,200 miles per hour.

  • Cory Kuhn: It's just revolutionized

  • what fighter aircraft are capable of.

  • Narrator: And these are the pilots training to fly

  • that $100 million aircraft.

  • Michael Watts: A lot of people just think you show up,

  • fly, and then go home, have a beer,

  • but it's not at all like that.

  • Kuhn: Not only are you flying,

  • but you're talking on four different radios.

  • You're working the radar, you're working the TFLIR,

  • you're working the electrical optical system there

  • while you're still navigating, talking to ATC,

  • and then working weapons on top of that.

  • Narrator: Student pilots spend a year

  • training to fly the F-35 Bravo

  • here, at the Marine Corps Air Station

  • in Beaufort, South Carolina.

  • This is a pilot's last stop before getting deployed

  • to a fleet squadron overseas.

  • And it's here they learn

  • to handle the multi-role fighter jet

  • in a variety of missions.

  • Kuhn: We do strikes, so aerial interception.

  • We do OCA/DCA, so offensive counter air/

  • defensive counter air, armed reconnaissance,

  • and then really the bread and butter though is SEAD,

  • so suppression of enemy air defenses.

  • Narrator: The pilots we met are part

  • of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 501,

  • also known as the Warlords.

  • Diego Rayas: Once you complete here,

  • they send you out to the fleet squadrons

  • out in Yuma or Japan.

  • Narrator: Student pilots in the training squadron

  • have already completed flight school,

  • so training is focused specifically

  • on operating the F-35B.

  • Kuhn: Eventually, every fighter pilot

  • that comes through the Marine Corps

  • is going to go fly an F-35.

  • I'm Michael Watts.

  • I'm a major in the Marine Corps.

  • My grandfather was a pilot in World War II,

  • and I would always go to his house,

  • see his models of his B-25 bomber,

  • and also my father was a Navy pilot in Vietnam.

  • So I kind of grew up with it in my blood.

  • Right here, we're just basically starting

  • to learn how to fly the airplane,

  • and then you go through all the different mission sets

  • and basic skills.

  • Narrator: Because there are only so many jets

  • that can fly at a time,

  • most of the pilots' instruction comes on the ground,

  • in the simulator and in the classroom.

  • We weren't allowed to film some classified aspects

  • of the pilots' instruction.

  • But we were allowed to film the pilots practicing

  • the aircraft's most unique capabilities

  • and go behind the scenes as they suited up

  • for a training mission.

  • During training, it's crucial

  • for the pilots to get comfortable

  • executing the F-35B's STOVL maneuvers,

  • because they'll have to

  • master those techniques

  • on an aircraft carrier.

  • Rayas: Really, the main thing is when we fly off the ship.

  • So, when I get out to Japan here in a few weeks,

  • I'll eventually be learning how to fly off the ship.

  • How do we get on there? We do vertical landings.

  • How do we take off? We do short takeoffs.

  • And so that's really the big reason why we're doing it.

  • Narrator: Lockheed Martin makes three variations

  • of the F-35 Lightning II,

  • but the Marine Corps' F-35 Bravo is the only one

  • with STOVL capabilities.

  • This feature is a big reason

  • why the Marine Corps' 2019 aviation plan

  • called for replacing its current fleet of aircraft

  • with more than 350 F-35Bs.

  • Kuhn: We're replacing all of the Hornets,

  • all the Harriers, and all the Prowlers with F-35s.

  • Narrator: Conventional jets need about

  • 3,000 feet for takeoff.

  • But in optimal conditions,

  • an F-35B can take off in just a couple hundred feet.

  • Rayas: For a takeoff, we get onto the runway,

  • and then at that point is when we initiate a conversion.

  • We literally just hit a button,

  • and then the plane goes through its transformer sequence.

  • Once that's complete,

  • we're in now what's called STOVL mode.

  • There's different kinds of short takeoffs we can do.

  • My favorite's the button.

  • It's called the button STO.

  • And as I'm accelerating down the runway,

  • and literally just click a button

  • and then the plane will take off by itself.

  • It's pretty incredible.

  • And then shortly after takeoff,

  • we can convert back to conventional mode

  • once we get to a certain air speed.

  • Narrator: Once in the air, actually handling the jet

  • isn't the most difficult aspect of operating it.

  • Watts: It's actually a really easy airplane to fly.

  • It's more difficult to process the amount

  • of information it provides to you.

  • I would say knowing where to look at the right time.

  • Narrator: The student pilots

  • already have experience flying jets,

  • so much of their training is focused

  • on utilizing technology unique to the F-35B.

  • Kuhn: A lot of the difficulty is trying to absorb

  • all of the information the jet's giving you,

  • operate all the sensors and the systems at the same time,

  • and fly. And really,

  • that's probably the No. 1 struggle.

  • Narrator: Once a practice mission is complete,

  • pilots must take on another of the jet's unique features,

  • executing a vertical landing.

  • Kuhn: Having never done it, it was an experience.

  • My brain telling me not to slow down,

  • because in the Hornet, slow down,

  • that meant you're gonna fall out of the sky.

  • Rayas: It's a normal approach to landing,

  • as if you're going to the runway.

  • And then you're gonna level off

  • and then set a certain ground speed.

  • And then at a certain distance from the pad,

  • you're gonna start a deceleration.

  • And all that is is just a click of a button.

  • And then from there,

  • you're making sure that you're centered on the pad.

  • Then you just push forward on the stick

  • and then descend right onto the pad.

  • Watts: I would say the first time doing a vertical landing

  • in the F-35B is pretty crazy.

  • You practice it a lot in the sim.

  • You do it dozens of times in the simulator.

  • But the first time you do it in a plane,

  • just slowing down for the first time like that

  • and hovering over a pad with over 30,000 pounds of metal

  • 150 feet in the air is pretty neat.

  • Rayas: Usually, you have the world kind of

  • coming at you when you're flying.

  • And so you're kind of sitting there just looking outside,

  • as if you're in a tower or something.

  • And you trust that you're fine there,

  • you know, that you're still flying.

  • Narrator: Before stepping foot in the cockpit,

  • student pilots need to familiarize themselves

  • with the gear needed to operate the F-35B,

  • starting with their antigravity suit,

  • which helps prevent them from losing consciousness

  • while operating the jet.

  • Watts: It's a fabric material

  • that has bladders inside of it,

  • and whenever you pull a G,

  • it uses pressure from the engine to inflate,

  • and then it prevents your blood

  • from pulling down to your legs

  • and it pushes it up to your abdomen as much as possible.

  • Narrator: Each pilot's G suit is custom-made

  • to fit perfectly around their lower body.

  • Watts: And then we have a flight jacket that we put on,

  • and it has a bunch of survival gear.

  • Narrator: The pilot's flight jacket is filled

  • with a multitude of survival tools in the event

  • that they have to eject from the aircraft,

  • including a flare, emergency strobe light, compass,

  • survival knife, extra water,

  • whistle, radio, and an oxygen mask.

  • They have a code card for hand and arm signals,

  • just to signal search and rescue basically.

  • Then they have a signaling mirror,

  • just to signal the aircraft

  • with just a mirror and the reflection.

  • Narrator: Some less conventional survival tools

  • are supplied by the pilots themselves.

  • I always try to take my wallet,

  • in case I have to land somewhere else

  • other than back here.

  • That's happened to me before.

  • You land somewhere and you stay the night

  • and you don't have any wallet or phone or anything,

  • which is kind of difficult.

  • So I definitely take my wallet with me every time.

  • Narrator: In the event the pilots have to eject

  • from the jet, their flight jacket is embedded

  • with a unique safety feature.

  • There's arm-restraint lines

  • that are routed throughout the jacket.

  • When you eject, they pull your arms

  • basically in towards your body.

  • You're basically ensuring that your arms

  • aren't gonna get flailed out into the wind.

  • Narrator: The jacket is also equipped

  • with a flotation device, in case the pilot

  • has to eject over a body of water.

  • Marek: So, as soon as it touches the water,

  • it will inflate the entire jacket,

  • so they don't have to do anything

  • if their arms are broken or anything after ejection.

  • Narrator: Last but not least,

  • the pilots learn to utilize

  • the most technologically advanced piece of equipment,

  • their $400,000 helmets.

  • Each helmet is custom-fit to its wearer

  • based on a 3D scan of the pilot's head.

  • It's also equipped with noise-canceling headphones,

  • night vision, and a forward-facing camera

  • that records each flight.

  • The pilot's heads-up display is projected

  • directly onto their visor

  • rather than on the glass at the front of the cockpit

  • thanks to two small projectors inside the helmet.

  • This allows the pilot to easily view key data,

  • such as altitude, air speed, and direction.

  • Kuhn: Since the jet is able to help us so much,

  • really flying should be second nature.

  • That way, you can focus on all of the information

  • that the jet's giving you.

  • Narrator: Finally, the F-35's Distributed Aperture System

  • creates a 360-degree view of the jet's surroundings

  • by stitching together feeds

  • from six cameras mounted on the plane,

  • enabling the pilot to see through the base

  • and walls of the aircraft.

  • Watts: I think a lot of people underestimate

  • the amount of work it takes to become a pilot,

  • and a fighter pilot specifically.

  • Narrator: A one-hour flight, even a simulated one,

  • might mean up to six additional hours of briefing,

  • gearing up, flight inspections, and debriefing,

  • not to mention the hours spent studying for each mission.

  • Watts: So you could spend a whole day preparing

  • and debriefing one single hour of flight.

  • I think it's awesome to be

  • in the fifth-generation stealth fighter,

  • kind of at the tip of the spear.

  • It's a heavily weighted aircraft

  • in terms of the combat power

  • that the Marine Corps brings to the fight,

  • and I'm honored to be a part of that.

  • It's definitely pretty cool to carry on that tradition,

  • talk to my dad about everything that I'm doing now

  • and how it relates to what he did.