ABOARD THE USS DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER — Visitors to this aircraft carrier walked out the door to their perch overlooking the flight deck, eyes struggling to adjust to the sunlight, and scanned the sky for a black dot off the stern of the ship.
After a high-pitched whine, the black dot blossomed into a hulking F-35 joint strike fighter. It closed in on the vast ship, thumped onto the deck, grabbed the arresting wire and lurched to a complete stop in just over 300 feet. While the visitors' ears were protected with both earplugs and over-the-ear headphones, their skulls rattled with the roar of the jet's engine.
As quickly as the thunderous jet had broken the stillness of a sunny day in the Atlantic about 100 miles off the coast of Virginia, it was quiet again, replaced by the yells of sailors on the flight deck, preparing the F-35 for its next takeoff as it neared the end of its second test at sea.
Cmdr. Tony Wilson, who flew during both development tests of the plane, was living a childhood dream as a test pilot for the F-35. Still, that didn't take away the inevitable moment of "sheer doubt" he had when he became the first person to land the Navy's variant on the aircraft carrier Nimitz last November.