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Pioneering A New Frontier: The Men Behind The F-35C


The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN) 68 welcomed aboard the F-35C Lightning II carrier variant Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Nov. 3. The Patuxent River Integrated Test Force from Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 spent the last two weeks testing the F-35C’s compatibility with carriers and ease of operations in the at-sea environment. But behind the F-35C are two remarkable men who embraced the unknowns of a new aircraft and made their impression on naval aviation history.


Photo by MCSA Kole E. Carpenter



When Cmdr. Michael “Brick” Wilson was a child, he spent many days in Florida with his grandfather at airports watching planes fly. They were there for no other reason than their shared love of aviation.

Wilson’s road was a long one. He began his naval career somewhere that seems quite contrary to the naval aviator he is today. In fact, you couldn’t see an aircraft in sight of where he was.

“I joined the Navy in 1991 and started off as a nuclear trained electrician on board submarines,” said Wilson. “Needless to say, life onboard a submarine is very different than life as a pilot.”

After years of college, flight school, flying in squadrons, graduating with a master of science in aeronautical engineering and finally test pilot school, Wilson landed a spot under the JSF Program Office with VX 23.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” said Wilson.

With almost 500 traps, he is no foreigner to carrier landings. Even so, he still vividly remembers his first landing.

“I will never forget the first time I rolled in behind the boat in a T-45 — adrenaline pumping,” said Wilson. “Just kind of falling back on the training, planning and prep that had gone into landing.”

He said there is no other way to describe an arrested landing other than a controlled crash.

 “The best way to imagine it is if you were to run at a brick wall at say 15 miles per hour and crash into it,” said Wilson. “That’s what it would feel like.”

F-35C Joint Strike Fighter conducts its first arrested landing on an aircraft carrier.

Photo by MC1(DV) Brett Cote


Wilson is the officer in charge of the initial ship trials for the F -35C. His team on board Nimitz consists of 232 personnel.

“I feel very fortunate to be part of such a wonderful team,” said Wilson.

He joined his team back in 2008, but didn’t make naval aviation history until Nov. 3, 2014, when he performed the first F -35C trap aboard an aircraft carrier.

“It’s almost a direct correlation between the first time I landed aboard an aircraft carrier in a T-45,” said Wilson. “It’s a day I’ll never forget.”


CDR Tony Wilson, F-35C Test Pilot aboard the USS Nimitz during CVN DT-1

Photo by Dane Wiedmann, Flight Test Photographer


Although Wilson flew the jet, he knows it couldn’t have been possible without those around him.

“I’m just one member of the team; I just had the best seat in the house for the evolution,” said Wilson.





CF-03 and CF-05 preflight deck ops aboard USS Nimitz

Photo by Dane Wiedmann, Flight Test Photographer


It was a hot summer day in Virginia Beach, Virginia as a little boy sat by the ocean. He pointed at a roaring jet as it soared against the bright sky. He smiled at his mother because the sight of jets fascinated him. Little did this child know that one day he would be the one in the sky.

“That’s where it started; as a kid looking up and seeing the aircraft in the sky,” said Cmdr. Christian “Wilson” Sewell.

His love for jets is what drove him to pursue a career in aviation. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1998 with a Bachelor of Science in Weapons and Control Systems Engineering. Following his graduation from the Naval Academy, Sewell attended flight school.

Sewell has flown the whole spectrum of Hornets including both models of the Super Hornet.

Now Sewell is one of the four pilots involved in the testing of the JSF.

“It’s been designed for ease of handling,” said Sewell. “So there is no special skill that you need to fly the F-35 as opposed to any other legacy aircraft.”

After preparing for the initial F-35C carrier trials, Sewell and his team from Patuxent River, Maryland made their way to Nimitz. For the arrestment and launching of this aircraft, trust in the Nimitz crew is paramount for the pilots.

“Clearly what we are doing can be dangerous,” said Sewell. “But we have a very good safety record and Nimitz has an impeccable safety record. The crew has done a great job. It was flawless.”

When an aircraft launches from the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, it has 200 feet to generate enough lift to take off successfully. The completely steam-driven system launches aircraft from 0 mph to about 165 mph in just two seconds.



Photo by Andy Wolfe, Staff Test Flight Photographer


“It’s exhilarating,” said Sewell. “For that first instant you have a hard time breathing, but once you hit the end of the catapult, you are airborne and flying.”

When Sewell lifts off the deck and soars through the air, his thoughts often turn to the jets he watched with his mother as a child.

“It’s a whole different world,” said Sewell. “When you get away from the land and are up the air; it’s absolute freedom.”

Sewell became the first person to perform an F -35C catapult launch aboard an aircraft carrier Nov. 4, 2014.


CF-05 aboard USS Nimitz during CVN DT-1

Photo by Andy Wolfe, Staff Flight Test Photographer


Wilson and Sewell made history on Nimitz by following their dreams. Today, we know many of the unknowns of this aircraft because of the hard work and dedication of these pilots and their team. Through their testing the F-35C is one step closer to establishing its place in Naval Aviation.


Story by MC3(SW/AW) Aiyana S. Paschal


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