DVIDS – News – Mission X Explodes High in History
When something is unknown, it has become common to give it the nickname “X”. It can be understood as dangerous, daring or mysterious because its results are not specified.
On July 20, 2001, Mission X took place in the California desert during an ongoing competition to choose the next Joint Strike Fighter. A test pilot pulled off an aviation hat trick: a short takeoff, horizontal supersonic dash, and vertical landing in a plane named X-35B.
While Mission X is a memory for 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 surface of the moon.
More than 20 years after Mission X, the X-35 evolved into the F-35 Lightning II, whose fifth-generation capabilities and mission effectiveness surpass those of other aircraft. Its combined lethality and interoperability make the F-35 the most demanded combat aircraft among U.S. services and international partners. It delivered over 820 aircraft, with over 1,695 pilots operating the F-35 and 12,520 maintainers keeping it aloft. As a result, the F-35 is ready to go when needed in today’s ever-changing global landscape.
Retired United States Marine Corps Colonel Art “Turbo” Tomassetti was the test pilot who made this critical test flight and is forever attached to the F-35. Turbo graduated from the US Naval Test Pilot School in December 1997 and began simulator training in Fort Worth, Texas shortly thereafter. Turbo began his flying career in the AV-8B Harrier II which had the same ability to perform short takeoffs and vertical landings.
Being a test pilot is risky because pilots and engineers know they sometimes step into a one-of-a-kind plane that has only been flying for a few weeks or so. As a result, they’re going to do things that have never been done, Turbo said in a recent interview with F-35 Joint Program Office personnel. The outcome may allow them to continue with their planning and execution, or it may require an overhaul of their strategy and processes up to that point.
“The ability to know what was going to happen before you got on the plane was really limited decades ago,” Turbo said. “Those test teams had some basic math they could do and a bit of modeling, but they were really discovering things for the first time when they flew the plane. Today we can learn a lot and do a lot better at predicting what’s going to happen with the capabilities because of the advanced modeling and simulation,” Turbo said. However, he believes the exhilaration of being a test pilot still exists during these first flights.
“The piece of excitement was there as a brand new test pilot because the X planes don’t come in very often anymore,” he said of being in his cockpit.
On the morning of Mission X, before the first rays of light could pierce the darkness, the elation could be felt as people gathered ahead of the 5 a.m. briefing.
“As we come in we can start to see the glow of the hangar lights, then as soon as you can see the ground you can see if the plane is outside,” Turbo explained, adding that if you can see that the jet came out of the hangar, that was a good sign.
“With the plane sitting, you couldn’t miss its tail paint scheme,” Turbo said. “You couldn’t miss this visible graphic.”
The red and black graphic featured three prominent playing cards emerging from a top hat – the hat trick.
Watching all of this, Turbo said that was when he realized not only that the mission was ready to go, but that he was too.
After the mission briefing that morning with the team of engineers, analysts and pilots, Turbo went to the X-35B.
“The rest of the world just eroded behind me,” he said, taking his traditional walk around the X-35B and patting it on the nose, which he started doing when he performed combat missions in Operation Desert Storm.
Turbo explained that four key traits characterized the successful execution of this maiden flight.
“To achieve something that has never been done, you have to possess a few characteristics as an individual and as a team,” he said. “The first one you need is confidence. You have to believe that you can actually do what you’re about to do. One tool we use to build confidence is simulators, and we’ve practiced the mission in those virtual environments,” he explained. “I’m going on the plane with all the confidence I gained from the simulator, which I did for longer once I learned I would be flying Mission X.”
According to Turbo, the next characteristic needed was intelligence, or “thinking outside the box”. He said the engineers were smart planners and the early stages of the X-35 program were put in place so that test teams had options and alternatives if something went wrong. An example of this thought process was to use the C variant of the aircraft to test whether the B variant was deemed unserviceable.
“There was a plan that if something went wrong with the X-35B, we could have put this short-takeoff propulsion system in the X-35C and continue to run the test program,” he said. -he declares.
Test pilots are often described as brave because they are the first to test the aircraft. However, Turbo shared that test riders don’t want to be unnecessarily bold and dangerous either.
“We want it to be safe. Our families want us to be safe. But at the end of the day, we go out and do new things in new jets that don’t have a fully developed playbook,” he said. -he declares.
But Turbo demonstrated another 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 as planned. Then came the idea of putting a little more gas in the plane, then going back and doing a vertical takeoff from the airfield,” 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. “
Engineers told Turbo to be careful when taking off vertically due to the lightness of the plane. They warned him that he would have excessive pushing and that it would be difficult to control his size.
But once cleared for takeoff, Turbo shoved the throttle and the plane just rolled over onto its landing gear. After a few seconds, he turned the power back to idle and checked his instruments. Everything seemed OK inside, and he requested an assessment from the control room.
“There’s a part of my ego that really wanted to try again and perform that test point,” Turbo said. “Control tells me everything is fine. My instruments tell me everything is fine, but I paused. What had just happened was not 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 thinking, that I figured out why, but I said, “I don’t think, I think we’re done for the day,'” he explained.
“Sometimes you need courage to say no, when everything inside of you wanted to say yes.”
Turbo said the final feature was engagement.
“We knew that one day we would fly Mission X, but the teams also knew that it would take a lot of preparation and hard work to get there,” Turbo said. “My role that day was to fly the plane to the best of my abilities. But it took an incredible committed team to make Mission X a success. designed, built and delivered the aircraft and monitored all incoming data during flight to ensure success.”
Turbo later described a test pilot following a test plan during a flight. It’s part of the protocol, and even if you’re in the clouds, the pilot stays on course.
“But there was this time when I was supersonic (speeds over 750 mph) over the desert, where I had to stay upright for about 15 seconds for the control room to collect data,” Turbo said. .
“For the first time, in those few seconds, I thought about what it all meant – a few decades ago there was another guy in another plane flying supersonic over that same piece of desert , and he was doing this for the first time. And here I am on this new plane, doing it all over again,” he recalled.
This “guy”, Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager, was the first person to fly supersonic on October 14, 1947.
Turbo said his involvement in Mission X greatly influenced him and guided him in his future endeavors. He became an F-35 instructor pilot and had the chance to teach the first 12 Marines to fly the plane. A habit Turbo said he developed with his students was to get to their plane before they exited the cockpit on landing, in order to see the expressions on their faces.
“Every Marine had a smile on their face,” Turbo said. “I knew then that not only did I think the F-35 was good, but almost everyone who had been on it and flown it thought it was good. You can have the plane A, B or C in some cases, and when we see everyone continuing to choose the F-35, that must 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 its place in the F-35 legacy. Through its confidence, intelligence, courage and commitment, the F-35 is the deadliest, toughest and most connected aircraft in the world today and for the next 50 years.