A look at the F-35 Lightning at MCAS Yuma - MyFoxAustin.com | KTBC Fox 7 | News, Weather, Sports

A look at the F-35 Lightning at MCAS Yuma

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YUMA, Ariz. -

The newest US Air Force stealth fighter, the F-35 Lightning-2 arrives at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale later this year adding to a growing collection of military aircraft over the skies of Arizona.

But the F-35 is no stranger to our state the U.S. Marine Corps pilots have been flying them for about a year now.

Lieutenant Colonel Steve Gillette is the "Green Knights" squadron commander, the first operational Marine squadron in the country to get the new F-35's.

"It's absolutely cutting edge when it comes to aviation... I have been flying the jet since 2012 and I have an F-18 background and I can tell you the jet is incredibly easy to fly, it's very intuitive" said Lt. Col. Gillette.

The first of 16 F-35 Lightning's were delivered to the squadron in November of 2012 and the Marine aviators of Squadron 121 in Yuma have been working out the kinks ever since.

"She's still kind of in her infancy, she has a ways to go" said Captain Rob Guyette.

Captain Guyette oversees squadron maintenance and also flies the F-35. He's used to flying 30 year-old F-18's and moving into the F-35 Lightning 2 was a big step for all of them.

"A lot of things are the same but technology has come a long way in 30 years" said Guyette.

Last fall we took you to the Lockheed Martin plant in Fort Worth, Texas where the F-35's are built in a massive assembly building. It hasn't been easy, cost overruns and delays have made this the most expensive weapons program ever at more than $100 million per plane.

"The platform is what it is because this is what our services have asked for, they set the requirements of what kind of capabilities are going to be important to them and that's what we're pursuing" said Kevin Smith the F-35 program manager for Lockheed Martin.

Capabilities aside FOX10 had to ask the Marines how does she fly?

"It flies so nice and it's probably the easiest airplane I have ever had to fly... the airplane itself is extremely easy to fly and it was designed to be that way... it smells new, it flies new, and instead of being a hatchet it's more like a scalpel" said Guyette.

The Marine version of the F-35 is called an F-35 "B" as opposed to the Air Force's "A" version and the Navy's "C" version. The Marine F-35 only requires a short runway to takeoff and it can land vertically like a helicopter which can come in handy when you think about its mission to help Marines on the ground.

"I think that this airplane will serve the Marines on the ground very well" said Lt. Col. Gillette.

Still are the days of the combat pilot nearing an end? Some people say yes as advances in drone technology make pilots an unnecessary risk. But these Marines say no, there will also be a need for manned jets.

"When it comes to combat situations I don't think this country will ever be in the position where we don't want a man or woman making decisions, a person making decisions in the front" said Guyette.

"But in terms in me as a pilot am I being worried that I'll be replaced by some machine? I'm not losing any sleep over it" said Gillette.

When it comes to drones, Arizona plays a big part in that as well.

At Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson the Arizona Air National Guard operates predator drones flying half a world away. All thanks to the defense satellite communications system, a sophisticated world-wide network of satellites. Safe from harm pilots in the 214th Reconnaissance Squadron can fly their predator drones from just about anywhere including Afghanistan. The missions are classified of course and our repeated requests for an interview were never granted.

But for now piloted jets dominate the skies over Arizona. The Marine F-35's in Yuma will eventually be joined by 144 US Air Force F-35's based at Luke in Glendale. Taken together with the large bombing ranges already used by the A-10's and F-16's based in Tucson it shows a huge military commitment to Arizona. A commitment these marines hope to take advantage of.

"Arizona in terms of the weather and the ranges we have in order to do that training is fantastic... there's no place else I'd rather be" said Gillette.

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