Category Archives: F-35

F-35B completes DT-III with Heavy Sea State & Weapons Focus

The two platforms (United States Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II and U.S. Navy USS America) represent a quantum leap in Marine aviation capability, particularly when considered in combination with the MV-22B Osprey, AH-1Z, UH-1Y and incoming CH-53K.

The fourth ship to carry the name, the USS America (LHA-6) serves as the flagship for a new class of amphibious assault ships that is built specifically to support “aerial assault.”  The LHA class utilizes the area on assault ships typically occupied by the “well deck” to provide additional hangar space, increased are for shipborne aviation maintenance, and additional aviation fuel and weapons stores.

It was fitting that the F-35B would complete its Development Testing (DT-III) on an advanced US Navy (USN) platform named “America.”

The two platforms [United States Marine Corps (USMC) F-35B Lightning II and USN USS America] represent a quantum leap in Marine aviation capability, particularly when considered in combination with the MV-22B Osprey, AH-1Z, UH-1Y and incoming CH-53K.

20161103-N-SS390-0xx PACIFIC OCEAN (NOV. 3, 2016) BF-1 GBU-12 External Weapons Uploading/BF-5 GBU-32 JDAM uploading Station 8 internal weapons bay.  F-35B Lightning II short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft conducts test operations on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6). The highly diverse cadre of Pax River Integrated Test Force (ITF) technicians, maintainers, engineers, logisticians, support staff and test pilots are embarked for the third and final developmental test phase (DT-III) of F-35B carrier suitability and integration. (Photo by Darin Russell/Released)

20161103-N-SS390-0xx PACIFIC OCEAN (NOV. 3, 2016) BF-1 GBU-12 External Weapons Uploading/BF-5 GBU-32 JDAM uploading Station 8 internal weapons bay. F-35B Lightning II short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft conducts test operations on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6). The highly diverse cadre of Pax River Integrated Test Force (ITF) technicians, maintainers, engineers, logisticians, support staff and test pilots are embarked for the third and final developmental test phase (DT-III) of F-35B carrier suitability and integration. (Photo by Darin Russell/Released)

Pilots, engineers, maintainers and personnel from VX-23 (Air Test and Evaluation Squadron) of NAS Patuxent River, MD flew across the country with their two heavily instrumented F-35Bs for the shipboard DT-III late October through Nov. 17, 2016.  They were joined by aircraft and personnel from VMX-1 (Marine Operational Test and Evaluation squadron) to support the maintenance phase of DT-III.  VMX-1 also participated in operational activity in preparation for the F-35Bs first shipborne deployment in about a year.

DT-III evaluated and validated the Short Take-off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) performance of the F-35B in high sea states, with full weapons loads (external & internal), with asymmetric loading (including taking off with a full load of externals, jettisoning one side and landing), live weapons and night operations.  Onboard maintenance activities involved the entire replacement of an engine, driveshaft and lift fan on one of the VMX-1 aircraft.  After replacement, the VMX-1 aircraft was flown off the deck.

20161103-N-SS390-0xx PACIFIC OCEAN (NOV. 3, 2016) An F-35B Lightning II short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft conducts test operations on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6). The highly diverse cadre of Pax River Integrated Test Force (ITF) technicians, maintainers, engineers, logisticians, support staff and test pilots are embarked for the third and final developmental test phase (DT-III) of F-35B carrier suitability and integration. (Photo by Darin Russell/Released)

20161103-N-SS390-0xx PACIFIC OCEAN (NOV. 3, 2016) An F-35B Lightning II short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft conducts test operations on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6). The highly diverse cadre of Pax River Integrated Test Force (ITF) technicians, maintainers, engineers, logisticians, support staff and test pilots are embarked for the third and final developmental test phase (DT-III) of F-35B carrier suitability and integration. (Photo by Darin Russell/Released)

USMC VMX-1 Commanding Officer, Col. George “Sack” Rowell, noted that “the F-35B will equal or exceed the shipborne operational capabilities of the AV-8B Harrier in high sea states.  Flight operations took place in winds of up to 47 knots from various angles, a deck roll of 5° and deck pitch of 3°.  Maintenance work was accomplished (albeit with challenges) while the ship was rolling 9°!”

20161107-N-SS390-0xx PACIFIC OCEAN (NOV. 7, 2016) An F-35B Lightning II short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft conducts test operations on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6). BF-1, Flt 614, Mr. Peter Wilsonl & BF-5, Flt 263, Major Rob Guyette test high sea states.  The highly diverse cadre of Pax River Integrated Test Force (ITF) technicians, maintainers, engineers, logisticians, support staff and test pilots are embarked for the third and final developmental test phase (DT-III) of F-35B carrier suitability and integration. (Photo by Darin Russell/Released)

20161107-N-SS390-0xx PACIFIC OCEAN (NOV. 7, 2016) An F-35B Lightning II short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft conducts test operations on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6). BF-1, Flt 614, Mr. Peter Wilsonl & BF-5, Flt 263, Major Rob Guyette test high sea states. The highly diverse cadre of Pax River Integrated Test Force (ITF) technicians, maintainers, engineers, logisticians, support staff and test pilots are embarked for the third and final developmental test phase (DT-III) of F-35B carrier suitability and integration. (Photo by Darin Russell/Released)

DT-III was a great success achieving primary DT-III flight test points as well as numerous additional milestones for the F-35B;

  • Shipborne integration of Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) V.2
  • Engine, driveshaft and lift fan removal and replacement aboard a L-Class ship
  • Live ordnance operations with the F-35B aboard a ship (from ship to MCAS Yuma Range)
  • F-35B integration with USN AEGIS validated
  • Operational Test aircraft flew Block 3F software at-sea
  • 1st Royal Navy pilot F-35B carrier qualified
  • Joint Precision Approach and Landing System (JPALS) utilized for shipborne landing
  • Use of night vision goggles (NVG) for landing
  • Link-16 Integration with a variety of aircraft

The success of the tests validates the Marine Corps experience with the aircraft to date.  USMC Lt. General Jon Davis, Deputy Commandant for Aviation Marine Corps captured that experience, “I’d deploy tomorrow. Tomorrow. The commanding officer (CO) of VFMA-211 is chomping at the bit, he would deploy them.  So would the CO of VFMA 121.  They are ready. These airplanes are highly capable and ready to go.

161104-N-VR008-0030 PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 4, 2016) A Sailor directs F-35B Lightning II aircraft on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) during flight operations. The F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant is the world’s first supersonic STOVL stealth aircraft. America, with Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron 1 (VMX-1), Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 (VMFA-211) and Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 (VX-23) embarked, are underway conducting operational testing and the third phase of developmental testing for the F-35B Lightning II aircraft, respectively. The tests will evaluate the full spectrum of joint strike fighter measures of suitability and effectiveness in an at-sea environment. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Kyle Goldberg/Released)

161104-N-VR008-0030 PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 4, 2016) A Sailor directs F-35B Lightning II aircraft on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) during flight operations. The F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant is the world’s first supersonic STOVL stealth aircraft. America, with Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron 1 (VMX-1), Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 (VMFA-211) and Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 (VX-23) embarked, are underway conducting operational testing and the third phase of developmental testing for the F-35B Lightning II aircraft, respectively. The tests will evaluate the full spectrum of joint strike fighter measures of suitability and effectiveness in an at-sea environment. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Kyle Goldberg/Released)

The potent USMC/USN amphibious assault platform of F-35Bs, MV-22Bs, AH-1Z, UH-1Y and in years to come CH-53K will soon be sailing the seas.  It is natural to recognize the platforms support of a broad spectrum of military operations and missions.  However, it is important not to overlook the role the assault carriers (LHD) platforms have historically played and will continue to play; keeping sea lanes free and open for movement of global commerce, and supporting delivery around the globe of humanitarian aid following natural disasters.

The ongoing success of the USMC introduction of the F-35B fleet speaks to a certain reality. In short order, the USS America (and companion ships) will be a message sending presence to some and a welcome friend to others!

161113-N-VR008-0097 PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 13, 2016) Sailors assigned to amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) prepare to launch an F-35B Lightning II aircraft from the flight deck during flight operations. The F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant is the world’s first supersonic STOVL stealth aircraft. America, with Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron 1 (VMX-1), Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 (VMFA-211) and Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 (VX-23) embarked, are underway conducting operational testing and the third phase of developmental testing for the F-35B Lightning II aircraft, respectively. The tests will evaluate the full spectrum of joint strike fighter measures of suitability and effectiveness in an at-sea environment. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Kyle Goldberg/Released)

161113-N-VR008-0097 PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 13, 2016) Sailors assigned to amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) prepare to launch an F-35B Lightning II aircraft from the flight deck during flight operations. The F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant is the world’s first supersonic STOVL stealth aircraft. America, with Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron 1 (VMX-1), Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 (VMFA-211) and Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 (VX-23) embarked, are underway conducting operational testing and the third phase of developmental testing for the F-35B Lightning II aircraft, respectively. The tests will evaluate the full spectrum of joint strike fighter measures of suitability and effectiveness in an at-sea environment. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Kyle Goldberg/Released)

The Aviationist thanks Sylvia Pierson, and Brandi Schiff, JSF/JPO PA;  Capt. Sarah Burns & 1st Lt. Maida Zheng, USMC PAOs;  Captain Joseph R. Olson, Commanding Officer of the USS America and entire crew;  Lt. General Jon M. Davis, USMC Deputy Commandant for Aviation; and USMC VMX-1 Commanding Officer, Col. George “Sack” Rowell.

DT-III was followed by a Proof of Concept at sea. Read the full story here.

 

Israeli Government Approves Purchase of 17 more F-35s bringing the total to 50 stealth jets

Despite criticism, Israel decided to exercise the option for another 17 aircraft. And there might also be some F-35Bs at the horizon to enable the Israeli Air Force to continue operating from dispersed locations in case of attack.

On Nov. 27, the Israeli Ministerial Committee for National Security, headed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu decided to purchase another 17 F-35A Conventional Take Off and Landing (CTOL) aircraft, bringing the total to 50 Lightning II jets.

The first two examples of the controversial, expensive, advanced 5th Generation aircraft, designated “Adir” (“Mighty One”) by the Israeli, are expected to be delivered to the Israeli Air Force (IAF), at Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel, in about three weeks.

The stealth aircraft, that the Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman defined “the most advanced in the world and the best for safeguarding Israel’s aerial superiority,” was contracted through the U.S. government’s Foreign Military Sales program; the first 33 examples were purchased in two batches: the first one worth 2.75 billion USD and the second for 2.82 billion USD, including infrastructure, parts, and training simulators.

The Israeli F-35s will have some components contributed by Israeli companies, including Israel Aerospace Industries that will produce the F-35’s outer wings, Elbit Systems-Cyclone, that will provide center fuselage composite components as well as Elbit Systems Ltd. that will provide Gen. III helmet-mounted display systems to be worn by all Lightning II pilots.

Although the extent of “domestic” modifications is still unknown, the IAF F-35As will be somehow different from the “standard” F-35s, as they will embed national EW (Electronic Warfare) pods, weaponry, C4 systems etc. This is the reason why Israeli F-35s are sometimes dubbed F-35I (for Israel), as if they were a different variant from the three baseline versions (A, B and C).

For sure, the new sales represents a good promotion for Lockheed Martin, considered the fame of the Israeli Air Force, known to be one of the most advanced and very well equipped: if the F-35s were deemed to be able to meet all the requirements of a service with a really strong reputation, that has been at war for decades and has employed its combat planes to perform some really complex operations (like the air strikes on the Iraqi nuclear reactor and the Syrian nuclear facility in 2007), then they should be good for most of the world air forces (some of those continue to invest in the program.)

Still, there are many, even at the Pentagon, who firmly believe that the F-35 is not suitable for combat for years to come.

By the way, the news comes few days after Canada announced the plan to use F/A-18E/F Super Hornet multi-role fighters as “gap fillers” until Ottawa decides on a replacement for its fleet of legacy Hornet aircraft. In fact, after investing in the program for several decades, the new Trudeau Government canceled Canada’s planned purchase of the F-35 (considered too expensive) and announced a new, forthcoming open competition for a permanent CF-18 replacement.

Anyway, it seems that the IAF might end up operating F-35Bs as well.

As we have already reported last year, talks between Israel and U.S. about a possible IAF acquisition of the F-35B, the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) version of the Joint Strike Fighter, have started in 2015, according to some Israeli media outlets.

F-35Bs would allow the aircraft to take off and land from austere landing strips in should Iran be able to knock out IAF airbases with precision weapons.

Israel is a small country and its main airfields could be easily threatened by long-range weapons in the hands of state actors or handed over to militant movements like Hamas and Hezbollah: IAF’s only chance to continue operating in case of attack would be dispersing aircraft to remote locations, an option that would be viable only thanks to the unique F-35B STOVL capabilities.

adir-first-flight

 Image credit: Lockheed Martin

 

Salva

We went aboard USS America during USMC F-35B Proof Of Concept Sea Trials

We Visited the USS America with 12 F-35Bs on Board!

The rumble of the MV-22B reverberated off the flight deck of the USS America (LHA-6).

The 12 F-35Bs onboard represented more F-35s than had ever gathered at sea. The F-35B moving steadily towards deployment represents an unprecedented leap in capability, the future of formidable maritime power.

The USS America (LHA-6) cruises off the coast of S. Cal with 10 USMC F-35Bs topside (2 more below) from VMFA-211 & VMX-1, as well as a UH-1Y, AH-1Z, & SH-60. Taken during the "Proof of Concept" demonstration Nov. 19, 2016.

The USS America (LHA-6) cruises off the coast of S. Cal with 10 USMC F-35Bs topside (2 more below) from VMFA-211 & VMX-1, as well as a UH-1Y, AH-1Z, & SH-60. Taken during the “Proof of Concept” demonstration Nov. 19, 2016.

The gathering of assets was part of a joint US Navy (USN)/ US Marine Corps (USMC) “Proof of Concept” demonstration held off the coast of Southern California Nov. 18-20.

F-35Bs from USMC VMFA-211 & VMX-1 on the deck of the USS America (LHA-6) during Carrier capability proof of concept demonstration November 19, 2016.

F-35Bs from USMC VMFA-211 & VMX-1 on the deck of the USS America (LHA-6) during Carrier capability proof of concept demonstration November 19, 2016.

PAO Capt. Sarah Burns indicated that the demonstration would explore the best way to integrate a large package of F-35Bs into the current USN/USMC structure to bring the most effective power projection from the sea.

Lt. General Jon M. Davis, Deputy Commandant for Aviation shared a core value of the Marine Corps demonstrated onboard, “No Marine Corps platform fights alone.” The F-35B, MV-22B, AH-1Z and UH-1Y combined and integrated with the US Navy’s latest amphibious assault ship (USS America) complete a package that provides the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) with a broad spectrum of response options, and the most advanced mobile warfighting capability.

F-35Bs from USMC VMFA-211 & VMX-1 on the deck of the USS America (LHA-6) during Carrier capability proof of concept demonstration November 19, 2016.

F-35Bs from USMC VMFA-211 & VMX-1 on the deck of the USS America (LHA-6) during Carrier capability proof of concept demonstration November 19, 2016.

The MV-22B Ospreys speed and range have been a game changer for the USMC MAGTF, and now with the F-35B on hand the operational possibilities take yet another quantum leap. The sea based capability provides global mobility unrestrained by availability of land bases. This integrated USN/USMC capability is ideal for the fight against terrorism, and/or the insertion of Marine infantryman or special forces deep in hostile territory.

USMC F-35B of VMFA-211 (squadron jet) in transport on the USS America (LHA-6) during the integrated USN & USMC 'proof of concept" demonstration November 19, 2016.

USMC F-35B of VMFA-211 (squadron jet) in transport on the USS America (LHA-6) during the integrated USN & USMC ‘proof of concept” demonstration November 19, 2016.

The access is increased even more given the platforms ability to quickly relocate to austere forward operating bases. Given the F-35Bs stealth, advanced sensors, situational awareness and weapons, it also provides the capability to operate in proximity of areas hosting Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS) or Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) environments.

F-35B from VMFA-211 taxis to take off postion on the deck of the USS America (LHA-16 during proof of concept demonstration November19. The American Flag graphic on the America's "Conning Tower" is reflected in the F-35Bs canopy.

F-35B from VMFA-211 taxis to take off position on the deck of the USS America (LHA-16 during proof of concept demonstration November19. The American Flag graphic on the America’s “Conning Tower” is reflected in the F-35Bs canopy.

The demonstrated integration of the F-35 and the US Navy’s AEGIS Ballistic Missile Defense System adds tremendous potency to an already capable system. The F-35 can provide over the horizon targeting data to a readily available USN AEGIS platform that can quickly intercept ballistic missile, drone, or hostile aircraft with its SM-6 missile (widely believed to have a range beyond 200 mile). This allows stealth detection of targets by the F-35, and a virtually unlimited (boatload) of missiles to utilize.

F-35B of USMC VMFA-211 hovers aside the USS America as it prepares for a vertical landing on deck during the integrated USN/USMC proof of concept demonstration November 19, 2016.

F-35B of USMC VMFA-211 hovers aside the USS America as it prepares for a vertical landing on deck during the integrated USN/USMC proof of concept demonstration November 19, 2016.

The F-35B replaces three Marine Corps aircraft, the F/A-18 Hornet, the EA-6B Prowler, and the AV-8B Harrier II. Not only does it do the job of each aircraft better, it adds Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (ISR) and Command & Control (C2) capability. The F-35B fulfills the USMC vision of “every Marine Corps aircraft a sensor, a shooter and a sharer.”

USMC F-35B of VMFA-211 launches off the USS America (LHA-6) during USMC proof of concept capabiliity demonstration November 19, 2016.

USMC F-35B of VMFA-211 launches off the USS America (LHA-6) during USMC proof of concept capabiliity demonstration November 19, 2016.

Once onboard the USS America the rumbling of the Osprey was quickly replaced by the near continuous roar of F-35Bs launching and landing. The tempo of operations demonstrated the F-35Bs readiness for deployment and combat activity. That should come as no surprise given the “B” has over 22,000 combined flight hours.

The F-35B advanced flight systems reduce pilot workload and increase safety in all aspects of flight. USMC pilot Lt. Col. Rich “VC” Rusnok an experienced AV-8B Harrier II pilot and slated to become the Commanding Officer (CO) of VFMA-121 in 2017 noted that, “hovering in the Harrier was like sitting on a one-legged bar stool.” His comment was complemented by USMC pilot Lt. Col. John “Guts” Price (slated to become the CO of VFMA-122 in 2018). Price noted that his first hover in a F-35B found him realize his learned instincts in the Harrier to provide inputs created problems in the hover, and it was better to ease off the controls and let the F-35B do as it wanted! Perhaps nowhere is this ease of flying more evident than in the speed of pilots Carrier Qualifications (CQs); in the previous 4 years only 8 USMC F-35B pilots had CQ’d, in the past 3 weeks 19 pilots CQ’d!

F-35B of USMC VMFA-211 perfroms vertical landing on the USS America (LHA-6) during integrated USN/USMC "proof of concept" exercise November 19, 2016.

F-35B of USMC VMFA-211 perfroms vertical landing on the USS America (LHA-6) during integrated USN/USMC “proof of concept” exercise November 19, 2016.

The Marine Corps lead the way with the F-35 program. The deployment of VMFA-121 the “Green Knights” to Japan is motion to take place in January 2017, with further deployments slated for 2018. It all speaks to the ongoing progress and maturity of the F-35 program. This “aerial amphibious assault force” represents a new era of flexibility and capability for the MAGTF, and I anticipate we’ll regularly see the USS America serving the nations interests in strategic locations around the globe.

USMC F-35B of VMFA-211 starts its take off run on the USS America (LHA-6) during USMC proof of concept capabiliity demonstration.

USMC F-35B of VMFA-211 starts its take off run on the USS America (LHA-6) during USMC proof of concept capabiliity demonstration.

The Aviationist thanks Sylvia Pierson, and Brandi Schiff, JSF/JPO PA; Capt. Sarah Burns & 1st Lt. Maida Zheng, USMC PAOs; Captain Joseph R. Olson, Commanding Officer of the USS America and entire crew; Lt. General Jon M. Davis, USMC Deputy Commandant for Aviation; Supporting F-35B pilots of VMFA-211 & the F-35B and MV-22B pilots and personnel of VMX-1.

 

Salva

DOT&E leaked memo suggests F-35 May Never Be Ready for Combat. F-35 pilot doesn’t agree.

Here’s the latest chapter of the saga: F-35  pilot counters Director Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E) leaked memo.

Three weeks ago, a memo dated Aug. 9 (one week after the Air Force declared the IOC – Initial Operational Capability – of the F-35A) by Michael Gilmore, the Defense Department’s director of operational testing, obtained by Bloomberg News, highlighted several deficiencies.

“The program is actually not on a path toward success but instead on a path toward failing to deliver the full Block 3F capabilities for which the Department is paying almost $400 billion by the scheduled end of System Development and Demonstration (SDD) in 2018.”

According to chief of the Pentagon’s top testing office, at least 15 capabilities in the F-35’s current software version, known as Block 3i, are either still in need of a fix or aren’t ready for testing.

“Unresolved Block 3i deficiencies in fusion, electronic warfare, and weapons employment continue to result in ambiguous threat displays, limited ability to effectively respond to threats, and, in some cases, a requirement for off-board sources to provide accurate coordinates for precision attack. Although the program recently addressed some of the Block 3i deficiencies, many significant deficiencies remain and more are being identified by operational test and fielded units, many of which must be corrected if the program is going to provide the expected “full warfighting capability” described in the Operational
Requirements Document (ORD).”

The memo provides details about all the hundred deficiencies in Block 3i.

“Because Block 3i is an interim capability based on Block 2B, it has numerous inherent limitations that will reduce operational effectiveness and require workarounds if the F-35A in the Block 3i configuration is used in combat.”

There are limitations in the capability to perform Close Air Support missions (in a permissive or low-threat environment); limited weapon load; no gun capability; limited night vision capability; greater reliance on tankers due to limited on-station time; unacceptable sensor fusion; etc. You can read them all here.

A subsequent POGO article provided an in-depth analysis of the above mentioned memo with the following conclusion: “This DOT&E memo clearly exposes the Air Force’s F-35 IOC announcement as nothing more than a publicity stunt.”

On Sept. 16, a new story written by Major Morten “Dolby” Hanche, the famous Royal Norwegian Air Force F-35 pilot who provided first-hand accounts of what dogfighting in the controversial F-35 looks like to a pilot with a significant experience with the F-16, has been published by Kampflybloggen (The Combat Aircraft Blog), the official blog of the Norwegian F-35 Program Office within the Norwegian Ministry of Defence.

In the new post (reposted below under permission) Maj. Hanche, a U.S. Navy Test Pilot School graduate with more than 2,200 hours in the F-16, currently flying as Assistant Weapons Officer with the U.S. Air Force’s 62nd Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, provides his take on the DOT&E memo.

Once again: “Dolby” is an F-35 instructor pilot from the Royal Norwegian Air Force, one of the Joint Strike Fighter customers. Needless to say, he may have a bias for his plane. Still, he’s a respected test pilot, making public claims and providing tons of interesting details about the aircraft that will help you making your own opinion on such a hotly debated topic.

Lack of perfection does not mean disaster – how I read test reports as a pilot

by Morten Hanche

Yet again, information from the «Director Operational Test & Evaluation» (DOT&E) has stirred critics into a frenzy over the F-35. The fact that the information was leaked seems to have agitated people even more. (We have our hands on classified documents!  Now we know it all!)  Yet again, the leaked memo described aspects of the F-35 which need improvement.  Yet again, the report resulted in press articles which painted a pretty sinister picture of the F-35.  The article featured in POGO («F-35 May Never Be Ready for Combat») serves as one such example.

I finished up writing this article before getting ready to fly another sortie in the F-35. Based on my own experiences flying the F-35A, I feel that the media´s interpretation of the previous DOT&E report is influenced heavily by unrealistic expectations – something which seems to be a trend.  I don´t see the point in countering every claim that´s being brought up.  First off, it´d make for a very long article.  Secondly, I would not be dealing with the bigger problem, which in my mind is a lack of understanding.

I fully expect the F-35’s most hardened critics to discount this article, regardless of what I write. However, some may choose to believe my story, based on the fact that I know the airplane and its capabilities as a pilot.  I don’t make my claims based on bits and pieces of information, derived from potentially unreliable sources.  They are based on experience actually flying and training with the jet for nearly a year

My goal is to shed some light on airplane development and testing; why we test, what we discover in testing and what a test report may result in. I write this based on my own experience, both through education at the US Naval Test Pilot School, but more importantly through working with the F-16 and the F-35, both operationally and in test settings.

What smartphones tell us about technology development

I´ll start with smartphones, as another example of technology development. Admittedly, phones are somewhat different from a fighter airplane, but there are similarities.  A smartphone is a complex system of systems – just like a fighter jet.  The phones keep evolving with both new hard- and software.  It is not unheard of therefore that the manufacturers issue updates.  Updates which provide new capabilities, but which also aim to correct previous errors.

According to Wikipedia, Apple released its iOS 9.0 operating system to their iPhones and iPads on 16 September 2015. The 9.0.1 update was issued already on 23 September, followed closely by the 9.0.2 update on 30 September.  Then 9.1 on 21 October and 9.2 on 8 December 2015.

Such a frequent update rate might indicate that not everything worked perfectly from the start. Still, wouldn´t it be a bit harsh to claim that the phones didn´t work with the first four software versions?  Might the truth be a little more nuanced?  Can a smartphone be a good product, even if it doesn´t work 100% from day one?  Does a smartphone ever work 100%?  I have experienced various strange occurences with my phones over the years. Still, for me, having a phone with all its peculiarities has been more useful than the alternative – not having a phone.

This isn’t an article about phones. The point I´m trying to make is that technology development and testing is a series of compromises; compromises in reliability, in performance and in quality.  Only rarely is the world black or white.  A machine may work well, even if it doesn´t fulfill all specifications.  I´ll go on with a brief intro to how we typically test.

…technology development and testing is a series of compromises; compromise in reliability, in performance and in quality.  Only rarely is the world black or white.  A machine may work well, even if it doesn´t fulfill all specifications.

How we test a fighter jet

Testing of combat aircraft typically sees a disctinction between Developmental Test (DT) and Operational Test (OT). In short we can say that DT seeks to answer whether the machine works according to the design specifications, whether the machine is safe to operate and what its safe operating limits end up being.  OT on the other hand seeks to find out whether the machine can solve a particular task, like: «Is the X-YZ able to provide effective Close Air Support, in the presence of threat A, B and C?»

The test program for a machine like the F-35 is an enormous undertaking. The contours of the F-35´s test program are described top-level in the Test and Evaluation Master Plan (TEMP), totaling 1400 pages.  Each sub-test in the TEMP results in a detailed test plan for that event.  Especially in DT, a test flight is literally planned down to the minute, in order to accomplish as many test points as quickly and safely as possible.  Flight testing is an expensive undertaking.

A test program should discover most important errors and flaws. However, time and resources available make it unrealistic to uncover every single issue.  Risk is mitigated by testing the most critical components, like the engine in a single-engined fighter, to stricter tolerances.  The amount of testing is a statistically driven decision.  We know that there are things we don´t know, even at the completion of testing.  We also know that there are likely few gross or dangerous errors which haven´t been found.

Each error we find during testing is documented and characterized. The language and format used is to the point.  The test engineer and test pilot type up their findings and typically describe the situation «in a vacuum» – without regard for how costly or difficult it might be to address the issue.  Each issue is then related to the mission – how will this quality or problem affect the given task?

Such a test report might read something like: «The SuperToaster 3000 was evaluated for uniform heat distribution and time to crispy toast, at the National Toast Center of Excellence, with room temperatures varying between 65 and 75 deg F. The toasting temperature was selected by turning a dial on the front of the toaster.  Even with full crispyness selected, the toaster´s maximum temperature was low, and toasting of even the thinnest slices of white bread took more than 10 minutes.  During early morning breakfasts, the time consuming toasting process will result in cranky parents, the kids being dropped off late for school and correspondingly negative effects on their grades and later career opportunities.»

This mission relation was probably a little over-the-top – a little like how some media articles relate its tidbits of information to an imagined F-35 mission.  In isolation, a system may not work as advertised, but could there be a workaround?  (In the toaster-case, maybe cereal for breakfast?)

Anyway, after the issue is documented, the errors are then catalogued, debated over and prioritized. Test engineers, test pilots, design engineers and customer representatives are often involved in the dialogue that follows when something undesirable is discovered.  Together, these will have to agree on a path forward.  Completely understanding the issue is crucial.  Alternatives could be a re-design, accepting the flaw, mitigating the flaw procedurally or compensating by documenting the issue better. The team will have to compromise when prioritizing.  Even when developing a new fighter jet, there are limits to what can be fixed, based on cost, time available, test resources available and also the complexity of the problem.  Altogether, development and testing is an iterative process, where adjustments may have to take place during DT, OT or after the system is put into operational service.

Where are we with the F-35?

What is then the current state of the F-35? Is it really as bad as the commentaries to the DOT&E report and DOT&E memo might indicate?

Personally, I am impressed by the the F-35. I was relieved to experience just how well the F-35 performs with regard to speed, ceiling, range and maneuverability.  It would have been very problematic if the airplane´s performance didn´t hold up in these areas – there´s just no software update which is going to compensate a draggy airframe or a weak engine.  (Read more about such a case in the Government Accountability Office, then the General Accounting Office´s report on the Super Hornet).

When asked about my first flight in the F-35, I compared it to flying a Hornet (F/A-18), but with a turbo charged engine. I now can quote a USMC F/A-18 Weapons School Graduate after his first flight in the F-35: «It was like flying a Hornet with four engines!» (His point being that the F-35 can afford to operate at high Angle-of-Attack and low airspeed, but that it will regain the airspeed quickly when needed).  Another unintended, but illustrating example on performance came a few weeks back, when a student pilot failed to recognize that he had climbed through our temporary altitude restriction at 40,000´. The F-35 will happily climb past that altitude.

Another critical aspect of the F-35 is its minimal radar signature. Just as with the aerodynamic performance, the «stealthiness» of the F-35 is an inherent quality of the airframe itself. There would be no quick-fix to a disappointing signature. So far, my impression is that the F-35 is very difficult to find. We see this every day when training with the F-35; we detect the F-16s flying in the local airspace at vast ranges, compared to when we detect another F-35.

Sensor stability, and specifically radar stability, has been an issue. I´m not trying to downplay that the radar´s stability needs to improve, but I am not worried. What would have worried me was if the radar had poor detection range, or if the stability issues were caused by «external» factors like limited electrical power supply or limited cooling available. Fortunately, our biggest issues are related to software, and not performance.  I think it´s realistic to expect software issues like this to be resolved (just like iOS 9 eventually ended up working well).

Remember that we´re not trying to re-create another «Fourth Gen» fighter in the F-35. If we had set our aim lower, we´d likely have had an easier job of developing the airplane – it would have been easier to build the F-16 again today.  But is that what we need?  The F-35´s specifications are ambitious, and reflect a machine which will outperform the previous generation of fighters.  Having or not having that kind of military advantage eventually becomes a political question.  For now, our leaders think we need that military edge.

In this context, I would like to bring up another point. The F-35 is in its infancy as a weapons system.  Yet, it is being compared to mature systems like the F-16. The F-16 has been developed and improved for more than 40 years.  Correspondingly, certain aspects of the F-16 are more mature than the F-35 at this time.  Having said that, I will caution readers against believing that other and «mature» fighters are without their issues.  There has been an unprecedented openness about the F-35´s development.  The DOT&E report is one example on how media has gained insight into the F-35 Program.  I still ask; do those who write critical articles about the program really have a realistic baseline, from which they can reasonably assess the F-35?  Next, I´ll give some examples which have influenced at least my own baseline.

The sometimes messy world of fighter development

Credit: RoNAF

Many will agree that the F-16 has been a successful fighter design. The fact that it has been continuously produced since the 1970s should speak for itself.  The fighter has come a long way from where it originally started; as a day-only «dogfighter», equipped with heat-seeking missiles.  (How would that mission set compare to a post System Development & Demonstration Block 3F F-35 and its mission sets?)  Modifications to the «fully developed» F-16 started right away  One early and visible modification was the replacement of the horizontal stabilizers with larger «stabs», in order to reduce the F-16´s susceptibility to go out of control during aggressive maneuvering at high Angles-of-Attack (AOA).  Going out of control is a bad thing, and could lead to loss of both the jet and its pilot.  Since then, the F-16 has kept evolving through many different programs, aimed at improving both structural life and combat capabilities.Other fighters also bear visible marks of error correction. The Hornet-family provides some good examples of aerodynamic «band aids».  An example from the F/A-18 «Baby Hornet» is the vertical «fences» mounted on each side of the machine, just aft of the cockpit.  These were eventually added to mitigate stress on the vertical tails, which caused their supporting structure to fail.

Credit: U.S. Navy

Another example from the Baby Hornet is how the stabs and rudders are driven to full deflection before takeoff. This modification was necessary to enable the Hornet to lift its nose during takeoff roll. The «band aid» added drag during the takeoff roll. Thus, the takeoff roll increased in distance, but no more than what was considered acceptable.  The «band aid» was an easy workaround to what could have been a very costly re-design of the airplane – compromises…

The more modern Super Hornet has a porous fairing where the wing-fold mechanism is located.  This was fitted in an attempt to alleviate a problem termed «wing drop».  The wing drop in the Super Hornet was described as an abrupt and uncommanded roll, which hampered air combat maneuvering.  The «band aid» partially fixed the wing drop issue, but at the same time introduced other problems related to reduced range and increased buffet levels.  These were still deemed acceptable trade-offs – compromises…

Even today, our modern-day F-16s live with many issues; errors which were discovered in DT, OT or operational use, but which haven´t been corrected. Either because of prohibitive cost, complexity or because no one understands the failure mechanism – what is causing the problem.  I´m not just talking about cosmetic or minor issues.  One example is that The Norwegian Armed Forces for a period of about 10 years could not operate its F-16s in single ship formations, in bad weather or at night.  The restriction was put in place because the Main Mission Computer (MMC) broke down relatively often.  The resulting operational limitations hampered both training and operations.  It took more than 10 years to diagnose and correct the issue, mainly because the failure mechanism was illusive.

The most outspoken critics of the F-35 couldn´t have known about our issues with the MMC in the F-16 at the time. If they did, and read that deficiency report, would they have concluded that our F-16s were non-operational, and incapable of fulfilling its mission?  I´m tempted to  think so, based on how isolated pieces of information about the F-35 often are misinterpreted and taken out of context.  Would they have been right in their conclusion?  I don´t think anyone could have made that conclusion, based on just the fact that «the MMC sometimes crashes».  The reality I know, working with fighters all my life, is not black or white.  There are nuances.  We work around and overcome problems.

Our F-16s still have issues today which will never be corrected. This is not dramatic or unexpected.  The normal state of affairs for a fighter is that we operate in spite of issues with structure, sensors, software and logistics.  We´re normally able to work around the major problems while we devise long-term solutions.  Some issues are temporary.  Some end up being permanent.  Compromises…  (I personally wouldn´t believe the salesperson claiming to offer a fighter jet which had zero issues).

I said I wouldn´t quibble over individual factual errors which the F-35´s critics present as truth. To me, a compelling argument for how well the F-35 works is evident by what we´re able to do in training. Three weeks back I was part of a four-ship of F-35s.  Our mission was to overcome an advanced airborne threat, while locating and destroying an equally advanced surface based air defense system.  After neutralizing these threats, we were able to destroy four additional targets.  All this prior to receiving the Block 3F capabilities.  Suffice to say that this mission would have been close to suicide with a four-ship of F-16s alone!

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15 F-35As (13 USAF and 2 RNoAF) Grounded By “Several faulty cooling lines discovered in their wings”

15 F-35A have been grounded at Luke Air Force Base after faulty cooling lines were discovered.

Several faulty cooling lines have been identified in the wings of some F-35A aircraft at Luke Air Force Base, leading to the decision to temporarily suspend flight operations.

Noteworthy, the issue does not involve all the CTOL (Conventional Take Off and Landing) examples but 13 U.S. Air Force and 2 Royal Norwegian Air Force F-35As. Interestingly, among the 4 aircraft already delivered to the Norwegians, only the third and fourth F-35 received at the Partner Training Center at Luke Air Force Base are affected by faulty components.

Some details about the grounding were just released by RNoAF.

The F-35, just like several other aircraft, uses its fuel tanks as part of its on-board cooling system: this imply that several cooling lines have been installed inside the tanks to allow cooling liquid for the aircraft’s avionics and other systems to pass through.

During a routine depot maintenance of one of the American planes it was discovered that the insulating materials covering the cooling lines have decomposed, leaving residue in the fuel.

The subsequent inspections have confirmed the same kind of issue with other aircraft fitted with cooling lines from the same provider.

According to the Norwegian MoD the issue has been traced back to cooling lines manufactured by one particular provider that have only been installed in the wing fuel tanks of 15 aircraft – 13 US and 2 Norwegian. However, an additional 42 aircraft currently on the production line have received parts from the same provider (including the three Norwegian aircraft scheduled for delivery early next year).

“We have been very pleased with our aircraft so far, both in terms of performance and technical capabilities” says the release that goes ahead with more information about the problem: “This is not a design flaw, but is instead caused by a supplier using improper materials and improper sealing techniques for these specific parts.”

Major General Morten Klever, the director of the Norwegian F-35 Program Office says he expect Lockheed Martin to identify the appropriate measures to correct this issue, and implement these as quickly as possible.

“This appears to have been an isolated incident. We expect this to be resolved by the time we receive the next aircraft currently in production. The F-35 will be key to our ability to defend Norway over the coming decades, and consequently we have imposed very strict requirements on the aircraft,” says Major General Klever in the official Norwegian statement on the grounding.

Since not all the aircraft are affected by the issue, pilots at Luke Air Force Base will be able to continue their training using other aircraft at the base, including the other two Norwegian jets as well as the Italian and Australian examples.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

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