Marine pilots flying the F-35B Lightning II for the first time at the annual Red Flag exercise in July say they are happy with the new jet’s performance.

It was the F-35’s first participation in the giant exercise on the Nevada Test and Training Range, which this year involved more than 100 aircraft from the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

“We’re very happy with the way the aircraft is performing,” said Lt. Col. J.T. Bardo, commanding officer of Fighter Attack Squadron 121, based in Yuma, AZ. “Amongst all the missions we’ve flown right now, we’re very happy.”

The stealthy F-35 is being built in three variants for the Air Force, Navy and Marines, with the Marine version the first to be operational. It is the most expensive defense program in history.

The Marine version is designed to take off and land vertically from the Navy’s amphibious assault ships, replacing the aging AV-8B Harrier jets.

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.