Testing the limits

Delayed in his dream of being a Marine Corps pilot, Capt. Tyler “Ditch” Bonnett, UND ’08, persevered

Capt. Tyler “Ditch” Bonnett stand next to an F-35B at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Yuma, Ariz. Image courtesy of UND Alumni Association & Foundation.

In September, in a first for the U.S. military, a squadron of United States Marine Corps fighter jets deployed aboard a British aircraft carrier. Ten F-35Bs embarked on the United Kingdom’s only carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, for a joint training exercise.

It wasn’t the first time a Marine Corps advanced fighter jet has been on the deck of the Queen Elizabeth. A year previous, Capt. Tyler Bonnett, a 2008 UND graduate, was among a small group of pilots who conducted an at-sea operational test period on the new carrier.

After rocketing along the ocean, Bonnett would fly his F-35B next to the carrier and use the jet’s vertical landing capabilities to hover, then move sideways over the deck before gently setting down on the floating runway.

As a Marine Corps F-35 Operational Test Pilot, and one of the earliest junior officers selected for the honor, it is not lost on Bonnett how far he has come.

“It’s pretty crazy to be in the situation I am,” said Bonnett. “I’m just a small-town kid from South Dakota, you know, and I’ve always had a drive to do something special. And I’ve been extremely fortunate to be able to do what I do. There’s no doubt about that.”

Landing at UND

Growing up in Pierre, S.D., Bonnett says he always had a patriotic side, and driving machinery on his uncle’s Tolna, N.D., farm got him thinking about what it would be like to operate one of the most complex pieces of machinery, a plane. So, he came to UND to enroll in Aviation and the ROTC program.

After two semesters in ROTC, he decided to put thoughts of the military aside until he was done with school. While working as a flight instructor at UND after graduation, Tyler applied to join the Marine Corps.

Then, an unexpected obstacle: doctors discovered a heart murmur.

“I had to get that checked out before I could join. So, I get the heart murmur cleared, and the day that I get cleared, they call me and tell me they aren’t accepting pilots for a couple of years.”

Capt. Tyler “Ditch” Bonnett on the HMS Elizabeth during a 2018 training mission on the British ship. Image courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps.

Perseverance

Disappointed, Bonnett took a job with an aerial mapping company in California, but it was not long before he was back in a recruiter’s office to start the process again.

“I knew I definitely wanted to give the military another shot, and I wasn’t going to quit on it. I started going through the process again and it took about 2½ more years, but I was able to get a pilot contract with the Marine Corps and head off to Officer Candidate School.”

After training that took him to Virginia, Florida, and Texas, it was time for Bonnett to put in his wish list for what he wanted to fly.

“My senior Marine called me in, and he asked me what I was thinking about putting at the top of my wish list,” recounted Bonnett. “I told him, and he said, ‘What about the F-35?’ At that point, there had only been, I believe, two guys selected to fly F-35s. So, I ended up putting it on my list. And sure enough, I got selected for it. And I was the fifth one to be selected out of the training pipeline to fly the F-35. So that brought me here.”

“Here” is Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Yuma, Ariz., where Bonnett was first a part of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 and is currently a member of Marine Operation Test and Evaluation Squadron 1 or VMX-1.

The F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant is the world’s first supersonic STOVL stealth aircraft. The Marine Corps relies on STOVL aircraft in part because an aircraft’s ability to land and takeoff from virtually anywhere is extremely useful in close air support of troops. Image courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps.

The F-35 Fighter

Bonnett was one of the earliest Marine Corps pilots to fly the next-generation stealth fighter jet in the fleet. The F-35, as described by builder Lockheed Martin, “is the most lethal, survivable and connected fighter aircraft in the world, giving pilots an advantage against any adversary and enabling them to execute their mission and come home safe.”

Bonnett says what really sets the F-35 apart from previous generation fighter jets is sensor fusion. The jet’s sensors collect and display information on a screen and on his helmet’s visor, what Bonnett calls “an extreme situational awareness enhancer.”

“It allows you to look all around and see outside. Even when you’re looking down, you are looking through the cockpit and all the imagery is displayed on your visor. So, as you are looking down, you see the ground. As you are looking around, there’s a circle around your wingman. If you are in a fight, you lock the adversary up on your radar and they appear in your helmet as well as on your displays. All that information that’s being soaked up by the jet, you can pass that to other aircraft as well. It gives you huge amounts of situational awareness. It’s just a very capable fighter.”

Deployment

Bonnett’s VMFA-211 squadron was the first to see a combat deployment with the F-35B. He was deployed for eight months starting in July 2018 as part of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit in support of Operation Freedom Sentinel in Afghanistan and Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria. The squadron flew from the USS Essex, a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship.

Lt. Col. Kyle Shoop, commander of the Wake Island Avengers of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211, told the US Naval Institute News at the end of the deployment that squadron Marines were excited and appreciated the significance of the jet’s first operational combat deployment.

“They knew there were a lot of eyes outside of this ship that were on them and how they were performing,” Shoop said. “So, they were very aware of that and knew they needed to be extra diligent the whole time.”

For his part,  Bonnett says the F-35B performed phenomenally well in its first combat deployment.

“We had a great group of Marines, not just on the pilot side, but on the maintenance side as well. We didn’t drop any sorties; the jets were always ready to go. And we had a big group of non-commissioned officers that did a fantastic job on the deployment. As far as the combat capabilities go, it did everything it needed to do as advertised.”

Now back in Yuma, Bonnett is the first to test upgrades to the F-35 as a member of VMX-1. He says Lockheed-Martin provides continuous software updates adding new capabilities, so he and his fellow test pilots put the jet through its paces and report the results. Their feedback is used to train other Marines flying F-35s (the Marine Corps also flies F-35Cs which give up the short takeoff/vertical landing capabilities of the F-35B to land on the aircraft carrier while carrying more fuel and ordnance).

Motivation

Bonnett looks back fondly at his time at UND, where, in addition to his aviation studies, he was a manager for the UND Football team.

“That was kind of my fraternity, that group of guys. And then on the aviation side, I had a good group of friends as well. I was a flight instructor. Did a lot of internships. It turned out to be the perfect thing for me. There’s nothing that motivates me more than being able to practice what I’m learning in school, so being able to fly and do the coursework at the same time was the perfect motivator for me to keep pushing.”

That motivation to keep pushing continued as Tyler missed his first opportunity to join the Marines due to a heart murmur. While he could have applied to be a pilot in another branch of the military, he says he had his mind set on joining the few and the proud.

“I knew that I would definitely enjoy the Marines a little bit more because of the edge that they bring. So, I decided to go that route, and I definitely have not regretted it.”

By Milo Smith. This story originally appeared in the UND Alumni Magazine.

Milo SmithAbout the author

Milo Smith is senior director of public relations at the UND Alumni Association & Foundation.