Visiting the F-35 Squadron at Yuma Air Station: The Executive Officer of VMF121 Provides an Update
2014-08-06 By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake
Last Fall we had the chance to meet with pilots and maintainers at Eglin Air Force Base along with Secretary Michael Wynne.
In addition to talking with Lt. Col. “Chip” Berke about his F-22 and F-35 experiences, we had a chance to talk with the Commanding Officer for VMF-121, Lt. Col. Gillette prior to the squadron’s departure for Yuma Marine Corps Air Station.
Lt. Col. Gillette highlighted the path to integrating the F-35B into USMC operations.
Much like the unfolding of the Osprey has significantly impacted on Marine Corps thinking about the future of air assault and related missions, the roll out of the F-35B will reshape overall USMC thinking about MAGTF operations.
The airplane we will take to Japan will be an extremely capable airplane, but it’s not the end state of the airplane.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the F-35B will be more efficient and more effective than what we have know in doing the spectrum of missions which the MAGTF is configured to perform.
And the first F-35B squadron is an opening of a new era.
It is not just a new airplane; it is the beginning of a new way to integrate aircraft into USMC and joint operations.
In our DNA as Marine Corps aviators, we serve the MEU or the MAGTF commander
We had a chance to discuss the work of the squadron and to get an update with the Executive Officer of the Green Knights, Major Gregory Summa during our visit to Yuma Marine Corps Air Station in mid-July 2014.
The aviators and maintainers of this storied squadron are working to bring to the first F-35B Squadron into service next year.
Historically it is interesting to note that VMF-121 was activated in June 1941 and began flying air ground combat missions in August 1942, with the “Cactus Air Force” on Guadalcanal.
The Green Knights made Marine aviation history with fourteen aces, including the legendary Joe Foss CMH so IOC means just that, ready for combat.
(For some squadron history, see the material at the conclusion of the article).
Question: How would you describe the current role of the squadron?
The Marines focus on a process of giving the airplane to the operators and let the operators figure out how best to operate and then use the aircraft.
Our leadership has prepared the way for the coming of the F-35 to the USMC and has worked hard to ensure that the infrastructure is in place to allow us to train and use the aircraft.
For example, when Lt. General Trautman was Deputy Commandant of Aviation he focused on preparing Yuma to be the home for the first F-35 squadron.
Clearly, being here with MAWTS-1 gives us a good advantage to get a good start on operating, training and shaping the tactics of the new aircraft for the MAGTF.
After creating the infrastructure, the next step was to get the airplane in the hands of Marines to work with the aircraft and to work with the aircraft within the limits of what it is cleared to do, because we do not have clearance for the full flight envelope we will have by the time the aircraft attains Initial Operational Capability.
Question: Putting the plane in the hands of the operators is a key part of developing the aircraft as well isn’t it?
It is. Every time we fly, we are learning something.
While trained Test Pilots are operating instrumented aircraft on a detailed test plan, in Yuma you have operational pilots flying the jet everyday gaining data points that may not have been discovered by Developmental Test.
By data points I do not mean safety of flight related items, I am referring to operational data points.
More along the lines of how to optimize and use the multiple sensors to accomplish a task or execute a mission set.
Since we have such a good working relationship with the Developmental Test entities, the Joint Operational Test community, and the individuals from industry who are SMEs on the systems, we can get immediate feedback when questions arise and then promulgate that back out to the community.
For example, last week we spent several hours in the vault with pilot training officers and with pilots who have been either MAWTS or Top Gun graduates or instructors.
We compared our operational experience with what has been developed so far with regard to our joint tactics manual which was written more than year ago, based on expectations developed from flying in the simulator.
Now we are seeing things in the operational airplane.
So how do we change?
How do we improve, update and morph the manual to where we see the plane operationally performing?
Where do we think we are going with the next drop of software in the plane?
Question: How do you externalize your learning outside of the squadron?
One way is working with the USAF at the 422 Test and Evaluation squadron at Nellis.
We tend to busy here, so we send operators from the training department or former patch wearers (MAWTS-1 and TOPGUN) to work with SMEs from the Navy and USAF at conferences or simulator events.
The young senior company grade who are coming off of a tour with a Hornet or a Harrier and now wearing a Green Knights patch go into the room with the aviators at Nellis with F-16 and F-15 pilots and work through the process.
In effect, an F-35 enterprise is emerging built around a group of individuals in the profession of arms who want to make this airplane as lethal as possible.
People come in from different backgrounds – Raptor, Eagle, Viper, Hornet or Harrier – and are focusing on the common airplane and ways to make it work more effectively in a tactical setting.
And talking to the experience of a common plane is a crucial piece of the effort.
When an F-35 pilot sits down regardless of what service he is in, he’s talking with an individual from another service on the same data point.
Let me explain what I mean.
If I sat down as an F-18 pilot, and I wanted to talk about AMRAAM performance, I was talking about it relative to how it integrated with an F-18.
The F-18 is a Boeing product, a McDonald Douglas product, totally different than F-16, which is a Lockheed product.
When I talk AMRAAM with an F-35 pilot from the Air Force, maybe one of the squadrons at Luke.
I am talking about the same exact radar, I’m talking about the same exact software — everything’s the same.
If we differ in training, it doesn’t have to do with hardware, it doesn’t have to do with software; it has to do with service approaches or carry-over from previous doctrinal employment.
When an F-35A pilot talks with an F-35B pilot and they discuss what they would to see with the evolution of the aircraft they are discussing essentially the same airplane and its evolution.
It is two operators of the same airplane focused on what they want to see evolve even though they are in different services.
And the commonality point is really lost in the broader discussion of the F-35.
And when it comes to strategic impact it is the commonality associated with logistics, which will have a really significant operational impact.
The interoperability at the supply level, the logistics level, the procurement level or the maintenance training level is a key foundation for joint and coalition airpower going forward leveraging the F-35.
(Note the 422 USAF squadron has 2 F-16, 1 F-15E, 1 F-15C and 2 A-10 pilots flying the F-35A. This Fall they will get a USMC FA-18 pilot (former MAWTS Instructor) to serve on the staff.)
Question: Let us focus on the squadron and its composition and work schedule, so to speak. What is the current situation?
We have 16 airplanes in the squadron. We have 15 pilots who have gone through VMFAT-501 at Eglin.
Nine of those pilots have gone through S/TOVL training and are qualified completely to operate the plane that way.
The others will complete the syllabus shortly.
Question: Are these primarily Hornet or Harrier pilots?
We only have F-35 pilots. Our flight temp is Tuesday through Friday.
We have the only organic maintenance department in DOD.
When I say organic I means that we do not have contractors fixing our airplanes, we have Marines fixing our airplanes.
We have the normal technical representative support from contractors as one would expect with an organic squadron.
We are 260 strong in the squadron and we run two shifts, six five days and six five nights a week. Our pilots fly around 15 hours per month.
Question: When you fly the plane how do you balance the air-to-air and close air support missions?
That is a good question.
The plane and its combat systems and the way the cockpit is designed allows the pilot to handle the missions in a very effective an integrated manner.
To be able to do CAS, you have to make certain that you can suppress threats that would make it prohibited.
With this plane, you can affect the environment to make CAS more readily available and more quickly.
Question: The F-35 is a multi-tasking aircraft and as such how do you approach doing air-to-air and air-to-ground missions?
You can flip between the two without ever forgetting where you were on the last one.
And let me explain that a little bit better. In the F-18, when we were going to air-to-ground mode specifically on the strike, and we are using the radar, and if we want to the targeting pod, we would get to a certain point in time in the mission, where we have to use some sort of a planning tool.
The pilot would have to sort out when he would be able to go all heads down to try to find the target and employ on the target.
And I need to have a certain amount of distance between me and a threat so that when I come heads back up and start looking for possibly an air breathing threat or a surface-to-air missile, would need to suspend the task of employing that piece of ordinance or that weapon for the CAS mission.
This airplane’s different because with the data being fused, I’m not using multiple different displays with each.
The main difference that I see between federated and fused systems is in the F-18, not only was it all in different displays, but each sensor had its own uncertainty volumes and algorithms associated with it.
It was up to me as an aviator knowing the capabilities and limitations in my system to decipher and draw the line between the mission sets.
In the F-35, the fusion engine does a lot of that in the background, while simultaneously, I can be executing an air-to-air mission or an air-to-ground mission, and have an air-to-air track file up, or multiple air-to-air track files, and determine how to flip missions.
Because the fidelity of the data is there right now, which allows me to determine if I need to go back into an air-to-air mindset because I have to deal with this right now as opposed to continuing the CAS mission.
And I have a much broader set of integrated tool sets to draw upon.
For example, if I need an electronic warfare tool set, with the F-18 I have to call in a separate aircraft to provide for that capability.
With the F-35 I have organic EW capability. The EW capability works well in the aircraft. From the time it is recognized that such a capability is need to the time that it is used requires a push of a button.
It does not require that a supporting asset be deployed.
Question: Obviously your pilots need to be trained to combine the air-to-air and CAS capabilities and to use the new organic tools sets as well?
Now we’re going to have a pilot that’s versed in doing CAS, if he needs to use the electromagnetic spectrum or exploit it to accomplish his mission, he’ll be educated and have the equipment to do so.
If he needs to use it in the air-to-air arena to exploit it, to accomplish his mission, he’ll have the training and the equipment needed to use it as well.
In the current situation, I would deploy a Prowler to work with my legacy fighters.
The Prowler would have to be sortied and would operate only for a period of time and in a specific operational area.
With the low observability of the F-35 combined with the organic EW capability of the aircraft, the aircraft expands my capabilities for both air-to-air and CAS.
The official USMC biography for Major Summa:
Major Summa graduated from the United States Naval Academy in May 1998 with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Ocean Engineering. Following graduation he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant and reported to The Basic School in August 1998. Upon completion of The Basic School, Major Summa reported to NAS Pensacola, FL, and was assigned to the VT-2 Doerbirds for Primary flight training in the T-34C. Following Primary, Major Summa reported to NAS Meridian for intermediate and advanced jet training in the T-2C and T-45C. Major Summa was designated a Naval Aviator in August 2001 and was assigned to VFA-106 at NAS Oceana to begin training at the F/A-18 Fleet Replacement Squadron.
In February 2003 Major Summa reported to MCAS Beaufort and was assigned to VMFA(AW)-332, the Moonlighters. While assigned to VMFA(AW)-332 he served as the ALSS division officer, Airframes division officer, Quality Assurance division officer, and Assistant Operations Officer. During his time with the Moonlighters, Major Summa deployed to Iwakuni, Japan as part of the Unit Deployment Program and to Al Asad, Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Upon return from Iraq, Major Summa attended the Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) Course 1-07 in September 2006. Following completion of the WTI Course, Major Summa served as the Pilot Training Officer for VMFA(AW)-332 and subsequently as the MAG-31 WTI. In July 2007 Major Summa attended the Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) and completed the Strike-Fighter Tactics Instructor (SFTI) Course.
In November 2007 Major Summa reported to instruct at Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1) located at MCAS Yuma. During his tour at MAWTS-1 he worked in the F/A-18 division as the scheduling and standardization officer and in the Aviation Development of Tactics and Evaluation department as the Anti-Air Warfare specialist. While at MAWTS-1, Major Summa served as the OAS-4 evolution coordinator and the subject matter expert in air-to-air employment, air-to-ground employment, and strike mission planning. During this time he provided fleet support in Afghanistan, Japan, and throughout the United States. Major Summa also instructed in multiple WTI Courses, Desert Talon exercises, and Marine Division Tactics Courses during his tour at MAWTS-1.
In June 2011 Major Summa reported to the Naval War College in Newport Rhode Island where he earned a Master of Arts degree in Military Studies.
Major Summa’s qualifications include: Mission Commander, WTI, SFTI, ACT(I), LAT(I), WTI-NS(I), FAC(A)I, and FCF pilot. His awards include two Navy Achievement Medals, six Air Medals, two Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation Medals, two Iraqi Campaign Medals, and a Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.
Since our interview, Major Summa has been promoted to Lt. Col. (designate) and has been picked to command VMFAT-501 in Beaufort as his next assignment.
Editor’s Note: When you visit the squadron, in the main building there is a Joseph Foss room.
Looking at the history of the squadron and Joe Foss’s role in that history, one can understand the heritage being built into the new combat capability represented by the F-35 B for the 21st Century USMC.
Tradition clearly matters.
Joseph Foss, C.O. VMF-121, Medal of Honor Recipient
By Stephen Sherman, July, 1999. Updated June 30, 2011.
Joe Foss was born on April 17, 1915 to a Norwegian-Scots family in South Dakota. He learned hunting and marksmanship at a young age. Like millions of others, 11-year old Joe Foss was inspired by Charles Lindbergh, especially after he saw Lindy at an airport near Sioux Falls.
Five years later he watched a Marine squadron put on a dazzling exhibition, led by Capt. Clayton Jerome, future wartime Director of Marine Corps Aviation.
In 1934, Joe began his college education in Sioux Falls, but he had to drop out to help his mother run the family farm. However he scraped up $65 for private flying lessons. Five years later he entered the University of South Dakota again and supported himself by waiting on tables. In his senior year he also completed a civilian pilot training program before he graduated with a Business degree in 1940.
Upon graduation he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps reserves as an aviation cadet. Seven months later, he earned his Marine wings at Pensacola and was commissioned a second lieutenant. For the next nine months he was a ‘plowback’ flight instructor. He was at Pensacola when the news of Pearl Harbor broke, and since he was Officer of the Day, he was placed in charge of base security. Thus he prepared to defend Pensacola from Jap invaders, riding around the perimeter on a bicycle.
To his distress, he was then ordered to the aerial photographers school and assigned to a VMO-1, a photo reconnaissance squadron.
But he insisted he wanted fighter pilot duty, even after being told “You’re too ancient, Joe. You’re 27 years old!” After lengthy lobbying with Aircraft Carrier Training Group, he learned all about the new F4F Wildcat, logging over 150 flight hours in June and July.
When he finished training, he became executive officer of VMF-121.
Three weeks later, he was on his way to the South Pacific, where the United States was desperately trying to turn the tide of war. Arriving in the South Pacific, VMF-121 was loaded aboard the escort carrier Copahee.
On the morning of October 9, they were catapulted off the decks, in Joe’s only combat carrier mission. Landing at Henderson Field, he was told that his fighters were now based at the ‘cow pasture.’
He was impressed with the ‘make-do’ character of the ‘Cactus Air Force. The airfield was riddled with bomb craters and wrecked aircraft, but also featured three batteries of 90mm anti-aircraft guns and two radar stations. As ‘exec’ of -121, he would normally lead a flight of two four-plane divisions, whenever there were enough Wildcats to go around.
He was the oldest pilot in the flight, four years older than the average age of 23. The flight would become known as ‘Foss’s Flying Circus’ and rack up over 60 victories. Five of them would become aces; two would die in the in the fight for Guadalcanal.
On October 13, 1942, VMF-121 scored its first victories when Lts. Freeman and Narr each got a Japanese plane. Later that same day, Joe led a dozen Wildcats to intercept 32 enemy bombers and fighters. In his first combat, a Zero bounced Joe, but overshot, and Joe was able to fire a good burst and claim one destroyed aircraft.
Instantly, three more Zeros set upon him, and he barely made it back to ‘Fighter One’, his Wildcat dripping oil. Chastened by the experience, he declared “You can call me ‘Swivel-Neck Joe’ from now on.” From the first day, Joe followed the tactics of Joe Bauer: getting in close, so close that another pilot joked that the ‘exec’ left powder burns on his targets. The next day while intercepting a flight of enemy bombers, Joe’s engine acted up and he took cover in the clouds. But suddenly a Wildcat whizzed past him, tailed by a Zero. Joe cut loose and shot the Zero’s wing off. It was his second victory in two days.
While the Wildcats’ primary responsibility was air defense, they also strafed Japanese infantry and ships when they had enough ammunition. Joe led on such mission on the 16th. Mid-October was the low point for the Americans in the struggle for Guadalcanal.
Japanese warships shelled the U.S. positions nightly, with special attention to the airstrips. To avoid the shelling, some fliers slept in the front lines. Foss grew to appreciate the Navy’s fighter doctrine and found that the “Thach Weave” effectively countered the Zero’s superior performance, because “it allowed us to point eyes and guns in every direction.”
Joe was leading an interception on morning of the 18th when the Zero top cover pounced on them and downed an F4F. But Foss was able to get above them and flamed the nearest, hit another, and briefly engaged a third. Gaining an angle, he finally shot up the third plane’s engine.
Next he found a group of Bettys already under attack by VF-71. He executed a firing pass from above, flashed through the enemy bombers, and pulled up sharply, blasting one from below. Nine days at Guadalcanal and he was an ace! Two days later Lt. Col. Harold Bauer and Foss led a flight of Wildcats on the morning intercept. In the dogfighting, Joe downed two Zeros, but took a hit in his engine. He landed safely at Henderson Field with a bad cut on his head, but otherwise unharmed.
‘Cactus Fighter Command’ struggled to keep enough Wildcats airworthy to meet the daily Japanese air strikes. On the 23rd, it put up two flights, led by Foss and Maj. Davis. There were plenty of targets and Joe soon exploded a Zero. He went after another which tried to twist away in a looping maneuver. Joe followed and opened up while inverted at the top of his loop. He caught the Zero and flamed it. He later described it as a lucky shot.
Next he spotted a Japanese pilot doing a slow roll; he fired as the Zero’s wings rolled through the vertical and saw the enemy pilot blown out of the cockpit, minus a parachute. Suddenly he was all alone and two Zeros hit him, but his rugged Grumman absorbed the damage, permitting Foss to flame one of his assailants.
Once again, he nursed a damaged fighter back to Guadalalcanal. So far he had destroyed eleven enemy planes, but had brought back four Wildcats that were too damaged to fly again.
October 25 was the day that the Japanese planned to occupy Henderson Field; they sent their fighters over, with orders to circle until the airstrip was theirs. It didn’t work out that way, as the U.S. ground forces held their lines and ‘Cactus’ did its part. Joe Foss led six Wildcats up before 10 AM, and claimed two of the Marine’s three kills on that sortie.
Afterwards, he berated himself for wasting ammunition on long-range shooting. He kept learning how important it was to get close. (The great German ace, Erich Hartmann, said “Get close enough until the airplane fills the whole windscreen; then you can’t miss.”) In an afternoon mission on the 25th, he downed three more, to become the Marine Corps’ first ‘ace in a day’. He had achieved 14 victories in only 13 days.
Despite rugged living conditions and the stress of daily combat flying, Foss retained his enthusiasm. He and some other fliers of VMF-121 occasionally went prowling with their rifles in the jungle, looking for Japanese soldiers, but Col. Bauer stopped this activity; trained fighter pilots were too valuable to risk this way.
They slept in six-man tents and ate the wretched powdered eggs that are mentioned in almost every pilot’s memoirs. On guy had a gramophone that they played scratchy records on. They bathed in the Lunga River; many grew beards rather than try to shave in cold water. They kept the beards neatly trimmed, not for appearances, but to ensure their beards didn’t interfere with the close-fitting oxygen masks. ‘Washing Machine Charlie’ and ‘Millimeter Mike’ harassed the field nightly, so some pilots tried to sleep in the daytime.
On November 7th Foss led seven F4Fs up the Slot to attack some IJN destroyers and a cruiser, covered by six Rufe floatplane fighters. They dispatched five of the Rufes promptly and prepared to strafe the destroyers. Joe climbed up to protect the others and got involved in a dogfight with a Pete, a two-man float biplane. He shot down the slow-flying plane, but not before its rear gunner perforated the Wildcat’s engine with 7.7mm machine gun fire.
Once again, Foss’ aircraft started sputtering on the way home. But his time, it didn’t make it. As the engine died, he put it into the longest possible shallow dive, to get as close to home as he could.
As his plane went into the water off Malaita Island, Foss struggled with his parachute harness and his seat. He went under with his plane, gulped salt water, and almost drowned before he freed himself and inflated his Mae West. Exhausted and with the tide against him, he knew that he couldn’t swim to shore. While trying to rest and re-gain his strength in his life raft, he spotted shark fins nearby. He sprinkled the chlorine powder supplied for that purpose in his emergency pack and that seemed to help.
As darkness approached, he heard some searchers looking for him. They hauled him in and brought him to Malaita’s Catholic mission. There were a number of Europeans and Australians, including two nuns who had been there for forty years and had never seen an automobile. They fed him steak and eggs and invited him stay for two weeks.
The next day a PBY Catalina, piloted by Maj. Jack Cram rescued him. On his return to Guadalcanal, he learned that ‘Cactus’ had downed 15 Japanese planes in the previous day’s air battle. His own tally stood at 19. On the ninth, Admiral Bull Halsey pinned the Distinguished Flying Cross on him and two other pilots.
The Americans were bringing four transports full of infantry to Guadalcanal on November 12. The Japanese sent 16 Betty bombers and 30 covering Zeroes after them, while the American Wildcats and Airacobras defended.
Foss and his Wildcats were flying top cover CAP and dived headlong into the attackers, right down onto the deck. As Barrett Tillman described it in Wildcat Aces of WWII: Ignoring the peril, Foss hauled into within 100 yards of the nearest bomber and aimed at the starboard engine, which spouted flame. The G4M tried a water landing, caught a wingtip and tumbled into oblivion. Foss set his sight on another Betty when a Zero intervened. The F4F nosed up briefly and fired a beautifully aimed snapshot which sent the A6M spearing into the water. He then resumed the chase.
Foss caught up with the next Betty in line and made a deflection shot into its wingroot; the bomber flamed up and then set down in the water. The massive dogfight continued, until Joe ran out of fuel and ammunition.
Between the fighters and the AA, the Americans destroyed almost all the bombers and many of the Zeros. No U.S. ships were seriously damaged. But that night another naval surface battle raged in Ironbottom Sound. Warships on both sides were sunk or damaged, including the IJN battleship Hiei which Marine bombers and torpedo planes finished off on the 13th. The major Japanese effort continued on the 14th, as they brought in a seven ship troop convoy. The American air forces cut this up as well.
Late that afternoon, Col. Bauer, tired of being stuck on the ground at Fighter Command, went up with Joe to take a look. It was his last flight, described by Joe Foss in a letter to Bauer’s family. No trace of ‘Indian Joe’ was ever found. Back at Guadalcanal, Foss was diagnosed with malaria. Two great leaders of Cactus Fighter Command were gone, although Foss would return in six weeks.
He recuperated in New Caledonia and Australia. He met some of the high-scoring Australian aces, who viewed the Japanese as inferior opponents and were a little dismissive of Joe’s 23 victories. After a brief relapse of malaria, Joe returned to Guadalcanal on New Year’s Day. Improvements had been made in his absence, notably pierced steel planking (PSP) for the Fighter Strip. Foss returned to combat flying on the 15th when he shot down three more planes to bring his total to 26.
He flew his last mission ten days later when his flight and four P-38s intercepted a force of over 60 Zeros and Vals. Quickly analyzing the situation, he ordered his flight to stay high, circling in a Lufbery. This made his small flight look like a decoy to the Japanese. Soon Cactus scrambled more fighters and the Japanese planes fled. It was ironic that in one of Joe Foss’ most satisfying missions, he didn’t fire a shot.