The first F-35C jets to be based at Lemoore Naval Air Station were flown in Wednesday afternoon, making Lemoore the first naval air base in the country to get the new generation of fighter jets.
The pilots made a low-altitude flyover about 1:25 p.m., then did a mini air show before landing and taxiing to a hangar as part of a long-planned arrival ceremony. The public and media were issued ear plugs because of engine noise, said to be greater than that of the F/A-18 Super Hornet.
Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, commander of U.S. Naval Air Forces, spoke with reporters before the jets arrived about concerns raised by President Donald Trump over the cost of the F-35 program.
The Joint Strike Fighter program has been criticized for its high cost of $367 billion, or about $108 million per aircraft.
Shoemaker said the president met with the CEO of Lockheed Martin, the plane’s manufacturer.
“I think that the pressure that the president applied is all good,” he said. “He is a businessman. He’s looking to obtain those capabilities at best cost. … There are no issues in terms of morale or anything for the fleet.”
The A model of the F-35 is expected to cost $85 million by the end of the decade, a Lockheed Martin representative said.
“I’m confident we’ll get there,” said Jeff Babione, executive vice president and general manager of the F-35 Lightning II program.
Lemoore is the master West Coast air base of the Navy, from which combat squadrons are deployed to aircraft carriers in the Pacific and Indian oceans.
After the planes parked and the pilots disembarked on Wednesday, Capt. Markus Gudmundsson, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet strike fighter wing, spoke to hundreds waiting at the hangar.
“This is the beginning,” he said. “We have ahead of us the task of building a new community in naval aviation.”
The F-35C combat squadrons – eventually there will be seven, each with 10 planes – will make the Navy’s “current force structure much more survivable and more lethal,” he said.
Lemoore Naval Air Station’s role as the West Coast air base is important to the surrounding community, said Kings County Supervisor Craig Pedersen, who attended the arrival ceremony.
We’re not invisible. We hope we’ll see them before they see us.
Lt. Mike Jennings, F-35C pilot
“It solidifies the Navy’s commitment to Lemoore,” he said. “Between the prisons and the air base, it’s well over 50 percent of the jobs.”
Jennifer Cripe of Lemoore is a retired federal employee who worked at the base for years as a facilities management specialist.
“I’ve been involved in all the pre-stuff, the planning of the buildings,” she said. “It’s awesome to actually see them on site.”
The F-35 is the so-called fifth generation of fighter jets. It is harder to detect, thanks to its stealth design.
“We’re not invisible,” said Lt. Mike Jennings, a pilot who flew one of the four jet fighters to the Lemoore base. “We hope we’ll see them before they see us.”
Until now, all Navy versions of the new jet – the Air Force and Marines have other versions – have been based at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where pilots and personnel have trained.
The F-35C jets will be assigned to the VFA-125 squadron, also known as the Rough Raiders, which was reactivated Jan. 12, the Navy said.
The squadron will serve as the West Coast fleet replacement squadron for the F-35C whose mission is to train pilots, as opposed to being deployed.
When at full strength, the fleet replacement squadron will have 30 F-35C jets, but it’s unknown when that will happen.
But by 2025 there are supposed to be 100 F-35C aircraft assigned to Lemoore.
The stationing fit in with the military’s “pivot to the Pacific” in which more forces are being focused there.
“We can see the Pacific, south China Sea being more of a hotbed. … It was important to bring some assets to the West Coast” to support missions in the Pacific, said Capt. David Jones, base commander.
To get ready for the fighter jets, “we have built an addition to one of our hangars and completely renovated the spaces to facilitate a modern and efficient workspace,” said Lt. Cmdr. Greg Raelson, acting Lemoore Naval Air Station spokesman.
One module of the hangar has been completed and the next is under construction.
Including active-duty military personnel and their families, about 1,500 people will be coming to Lemoore, he said. The base already has about 12,000 people, including family members.
At full strength, the squadron is forecast to bring an estimated $36 million annual payroll to the region, said John Lehn, CEO of the Kings County Economic Development Corp.
The F-35C is a single-seat fighter aircraft designed to replace the legacy F/A-18 Hornet. The last Hornet jet assigned to Lemoore flew off last year.
As the new jets are deployed on aircraft carriers, air wings will consist of the F-35C, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and other aircraft including unmanned drones.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is making the jets for three branches of the military – Air Force, Navy and Marines. The first test flight took place in December 2006 at the Lockheed Martin manufacturing plant in Fort Worth, Texas.
The F-35C variant, as it’s called, is designed for landing and takeoff from aircraft carriers, so it has larger wings and more robust landing gear. The first carrier landing occurred in November 2014.
More than 200 F-35s have been delivered to the military as well as five international partners and two foreign military sales customers, according to Mike Johnson, Lockheed Martin F-35 spokesman.
The current program calls for more than 3,100 F-35s to be manufactured.
Last year, the company delivered 46 fighter jets and is scheduled to deliver 66 this year. It will ramp up to about 120 jets per year by 2020.