Photo Information

An F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, performs a conventional take-off at the Strategic Expeditionary Landing Field during Exercise Steel Knight 2016 at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California, Dec. 11, 2015. This year’s iteration of Exercise Steel Knight works to advance 1st Marine Division’s warfighting capabilities, to include interoperability between the ground and air forces and integration of the F-35B.

Photo by Lance Cpl. Levi Schultz

'Rhinos' support Steel Knight 2016

15 Dec 2015 | Lance Cpl. Levi Schultz The Official United States Marine Corps Public Website

The F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter personifies great strides in modern air dominance capability. Among its characteristics of radar-evading stealth, supersonic speeds, fighter agility and advanced logistical support comes the capability to perform vertical take-off and landings.

Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, is the first Marine Corps unit to reach initial operational capability with the F-35B and is utilizing the aircraft during Exercise Steel Knight 2016, an annual training operation designed to prepare the 1st Marine Division for deployment as the ground combat element of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force. This year’s exercise took place throughout Southern California at Naval Base San Diego, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, and Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif. It was designed to improve upon the interoperability of ground and air forces as well as the integration of the F-35B.

To facilitate testing of the aircraft’s VTOL capabilities in an expeditionary environment, Marine Wing Support Squadron 374 constructed a 204 feet by 200 feet VTOL pad at the Strategic Expeditionary Landing Field. In addition, the support squadron constructed a 150 feet by 96 feet taxiway to connect the landing zone to the main landing field and hangar.

“The primary purpose of this landing zone was to test the F-35B on this type of matting to ensure it would not melt during its VTOL,” said Lance Cpl. Stephen Garcas, a surveying and drafting specialist with MWSS-374. “It certainly passed the test.”

The landing zone will serve for emergency purposes throughout the remainder of Steel Knight 16 but has the potential to be used in future training, according to Capt. Jonathan H. Royer, an assistance operation officer, MWSS-374.

“Because this is the first time the F-35B is out here on an expeditionary landing field we built the [VTOL] Pad in the event that there is an emergency so they have more than one option to get the aircraft on the deck,” said Royer. 

MWSS-374 undertook the project of creating the landing zone in just under two and a half weeks, a task that was projected to take two months. The task depended on the heavy equipment required, to remove four inches of concrete before any other work could be done on the site.

“One of the biggest challenges we face in the construction of a landing zone is getting the sand to compact as needed,” said Staff Sgt. John A. Vasquez, an engineer equipment operator with MWSS-374. “It took my Marines 17 long days to ensure the pad was put together.”

The project was an opportunity for the ‘Rhinos’ to show off their capabilities, according to Royer.

“It was a good test of detailed planning and communication,” said Royer. “With the backstop of the requirements and the strict deadline, the Marines had very little room for error.”