The Marine Corps' latest, and most expensive, fighter jet has completed more than 80 successful missions as part of its first operational testing at sea.
The jet being tested is the F-35B joint strike fighter, the corp's short-takeoff, vertical-landing aircraft. Early Tuesday morning, a number of aircraft screeched across the deck of the amphibious assault ship Wasp in quick succession, adding to the tally of successful sorties.
Six aircraft and their pilots are now performing day and night operations off the mid-Atlantic seaboard as the first portion of the final phase of operational testing before the aircraft are entered into service this July.
The multi-role aircraft, which packs state of the art electronic warfare, ISR and kinetic attack capabilities, is the key piece of the Marine Corps' future amphibious strike capability.
It will be the key weapon for the service that is the nation's go-to crisis response force, said Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, the assistant commandant for Marine aviation.
"We will be not just the nation's force in readiness, but the nation's force of choice," he said, touting its ability to be launched almost instantly from amphibious ships floating just miles off the shore of any country.
Beyond the basic launching and landing, test pilots have been participating in elaborate war games, pitting F-35s against each other in dogfights that make use of the aircraft's next-generation sensor technology.
The most valuable lessons, though, will be learned by the maintainers and logisticians who must figure out how to service and repair a strike fighter that is bigger than an F/A-18 Hornet and more complex than an AV-8B Harrier, the aircraft the F35 replaces.
British Lt. Cdr. Beth Kitchen, who is also participating in the exercises, said that has meant everything from repairing a tire to changing an engine.
All these tasks have been successfully mastered ashore, but on a pitching carrier deck with space constraints and the need to tie assets down complicate many procedures, she said.
The maintainers have now installed and uninstalled parts ranging from the lift fan that gives the aircraft its STOVL capability to canopies to ejection seats.
All the work isn't only to make sure maintainers are correctly trained and can execute their tasks, but also to find and document difficulties so they can be remedied before the aircraft is fully operational and deployed.
So far, however, they haven't found the need for many changes.
"We are confident we can maintain these aircraft at sea," she said.