Tag Archives: Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II

F-35: flying on phased out fuel or programmed by a videogame freak?

Soon after publishing the article about the “F-35 from the Cockpit” I’ve received some emails and comments about an interesting thing readers have noticed in one of the webminar slides used to show the Joint Strike Fighter glass cockpit’s symbology.

As the following image seems to suggest, the most advanced 5th generation combat plane, integrating the best stealth technologies, full sensor fusion and a futuristic X-ray-like capable helmet, flies on JP-4 fuel, a dangerous kind of propellant, quick to ignite and explode, that was largely used from 1951 to 1996, when it was phased out and replaced by the safer, kerosene-based, JP-8.

Image: Lockeed Martin (highlight mine)

As explained in the website of Air BP (“the specialised aviation division of BP, providing fuels, lubricants & services to our customers in over 50 countries worldwide”):

although JP-8 has replaced JP-4 in most every case, the potential need for JP-4 under emergency situations necessitates maintaining this grade in specifications MIL-DTL-5624 and Defence Standard 91-88.

However, unless the JP-4 was/is used for testing purposes, it is quite strange that while some combat planes are beginning to perform test flights on eco-friendly biofuel or synthetic fuel, the F-35 is flying on a type of jet propellant presumed to be phased-out or used only in emergency situations.

Unless, the F-35’s glass cockpit symbology, so “user friendly” to remind some early flight simulator games, was not only designed for a “videogame freak” as test pilots said during the webminar, but also by someone who used to play with arcade games with some simulation elements (as F/A-18 Interceptor or F-19 Stealth Fighter) in the  ’90s, when the JP-4 was still in use :)

F-35B Finally on track?

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta visited NAS Patuxent River on Jan. 20 and announced the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has been taken off probation.

“We need to make sure we are on the cutting edge” said Panetta when describing the Pentagon’s next generation war fighting technology which is to include the F-35 program.

The sigh of relief must have been palpable from the offices of Lockheed Martin after several tough dark years in which it looked in all probability that the STOVL (Short take off vertical landing) version was going to be scrapped after technical issue after technical issue along with massive cost over runs put the version at risk. The F-35B is a monumentally complex aircraft due to its remit of being stealthy and being able to operate from the back of a ship or from rough airstrips, but as Panetta himself stated that the F-35 was “absolutely vital to maintaining our air superiority,” but cautioned that it was important “to get this right.”

After hearing Panetta’s announcement Gen. James F. Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, made a statement in which he stated ““I welcome the secretary of defense’s announcement removing the F-35B Lightning II from ‘probation’ and granting it full status commensurate with the other two variants of the Joint Strike Fighter,” General Amos said. “I continue to be encouraged by the strong and steady progress that the F-35B team has made over the past year.”

With the survival of the STOVL variant the USMC can keep up with their plan to equip with a fixed wing aircraft their LHA (Landing Helicopter Assault) and LHD (Landing Helicopter Dock) to support a MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) in regional crisis. Moreover, the F-35B is expected to replace also the service’s F/A-18s to cover the full spectrum of modern warfare scenarios with their own resources.

Other program partners may have welcome the news that the F-35B was lifted from probation. Among them, the Italian Navy that needs the STOVL variant for the Cavour aircraft carrier. According to the original plan, 20 are supposed to be delivered to the Marina Militare as Harrier replacement, whereas the Italian Air Force was interested in some B planes to replace the AMX light bomber.

However, the initial plan will have to be revised as a consequence of the Defense budget review that the new Monti technocratic cabinet is about to lauch. Even if some political forces are urging the new Defense Minister Di Paola to quit the program and to renounce to the planned 131 examples, a cut is a more plausible hypothesis.

Although the final outcome of the Defense budget review is unpredictable a likely scenario sees the Italian Air Force receiving about 80 F-35s (A and B variants) and the Navy 20 F-35B STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) combat planes.

Anyway, it now looks like Lockheed Martin has finally turned a corner with regards to this very challenging project. As The Aviationist has already reported the other day following the Lockheed Martin F-35 webminar, the arrestor hook issue suffered by the ‘C’ variant was a minor problem and has been fixed and LM is awaiting the opportunity to test the new design out.

Historically the F-35 isn’t on its own with teething problems, the S-3 Viking springs to mind with its ejector seat issues for rear cabin aircrew that went on to a long and distinguished Naval career, the F-35 Lightning II will follow in its footsteps.

Written with The Aviationist’s Editor David Cenciotti

"F-35C unable to land aboard aircraft carriers" report says. U.S. Navy and Royal Navy have something to be worried about.

As highlighted by an interesting article published on F-16.net, among all the other flaws listed in the JSF Concurrency Quick Look Review dated 29 November 2011 (an official document recently leaked), there is one issue that might have a significant impact on American and British naval aviation’s future plane.

According to the leaked report, the F-35C, the variant developed for the U.S. Navy (and chosen by the UK for its future aircraft carrier), is unable to get aboard a flattop because of its tailhook design issues.

During specific tests conducted at NAWC-AD (Naval Air Warfare Center – Aircraft Division) Lakehurst, the F-35C failed to engage the MK-7 arresting gear with a disappointing score of 0 successes in 8 attempts. Considered that arrestment testing takes place on a normal airport, without the thrill of bad weather, pitching deck, nearby obstacles, low fuel, lack of alternate airfields and all those factors that make a trap on an aircraft carrier the scariest kind of flying.

Root cause analysis points to some AHS (Arresting Hook System) design issues:

  1. aircraft geometry (short distance between the Main Landing Gear tires and the tailook point)
  2. tailkook point design, with scarce ability to scoop low positioned cables
  3. tailkook hold-down ineffective performance in damping bounces relative to the deck surface profiles.

In other words, the distance of 7.1 feet between the tires and the tailhook is too short and the responsive dynamics are such that the cable lies nearly flat on the deck by the time the tailkook point should intercept it for arrestment.

Although the current F-35C tailhook point design was based on that of the Hornet, the F-18 geometry places the distance of its main landing gear to tailhook point at 18.2 feet, a longer distance where the trampled cable has enough time to respond and flex back to its original position.

To address the tailhook issues, the tailhook point and hold down damper components will be redesigned and tested at NAWC-AD, Lakehurst in April 2012.

Most probably, LM engineers will find a way to fix the AHS problem.

However, “if the proposed redesigned components do not prove to be compatible with MK-7 arresting gear, then significant redesign impacts will ensue. Accordingly, the program is conducting a formal trade study to assess options beyond AHS redesign. One option includes adjustments of AHS airframe location. However, since arrestment loads are significant and the aircraft has certain constraints with respect to engine location and survivability considerations, any readjustment of AHS location will have major, direct primary and secondary structure impacts” report says.

While the X-47B UCAV has a longer MLG to tailhook distance (longer than the TA-4J) than the F-35, meaning that it should not be affected by the same problem, maybe the UK Royal Navy is still in time to design its future carrier’s arresting gear to comply with the F-35C’s AHS. Or revert back to the F-35B….:-)

Image source: Lockheed Martin

F-35 targeted in potential military cuts. If Italy quits, will the stealth plane ever be affordable?

With a new set of austerity measures aimed at saving up to $25 billion to balance the budget by 2013 (and avoid a catastrophic default that would put the entire Euro-zone at risk) just approved, Italy could be soon compelled to review many of its future defense projects.

Even if the new Defense Minister, Adm. Di Paola pointed to a significant cut in terms of personnel, as the most important measure to preserve Italy’s capability to sustain current projects as well as internal and foreign missions, the amount of lawmakers among all political forces who advocate further weapon cuts has grown in the last few days.

The priority targets for cuts this days have been already identified: the Lockheed Martin F-35, that the Italian Air Force and Navy would like to use to replace the AMX, the Tornado and the AV-8B+ Harrier fleets (in other words, the only air-to-surface assets Italy can employ in Crisis Support Operations); and the Cavour, the second and most modern Italian aircraft carrier destined to be equipped with the much troubled F-35B, the STOVL (Short Take Off and Vertical Landing) version of the Joint Strike Fighter.

Dealing with the F-35, Italy has planned a purchase of 131 F-35s, worth about 15 billion Euro. Of those, 20-22 are supposed to be the Harrier replacement on the Cavour while the rest should be conventional A planes. The Air Force is interested in both the A and B version.

Both right and left-wing parties are becoming more critical about Italy’s involvement in the F-35 program arguing that the stealth fighter is a waste of money for a country on the verge of financial collapse. In their opinion, Italy should leave the program and lose the 2.5 billion Euro already invested in the development to save the 13 needed for production. Furthermore, “Italy is not about to attack anyone”, hence there is no need for such an expensive defense investment.

More or less the same words were used to criticize the aircraft carrier, that costs the Italian taxpayers 100,000 Euro each day (when docked; 200,000 Euro/day when on cruise).

For sure, the F-35 is a costly and uncertain program. However, some of its problems and delays deals with the advanced technology that this innovative aircraft integrates. Hence,  the decision to quit the program should be weighed heavily. If this aircraft survives, it will be the backbone of the U.S. attack fleet, replacing several aircraft types; if Italy confirms its involvement procuring “some” F-35s, it will have the opportunity to develop, operate and evaluate the future most advanced (and costly) combat plane.

Sooner or later Italy will be compelled to replace its ageing fleet of attack planes. Even if one of the Lessons Identified in Libya was the need for a light and cheap aircraft like the AMX to sustain long lasting air wars, current planes can’t live forever nor can be continuously upgraded to keep them in service for 3 or 4 decades.

When the moment arrives, there won’t be many options. One of them is using an upgraded Typhoon, a multirole non-stealth fighter plane of the so-called 4+ generation that, when required to replace the above mentioned Italian attack planes, will have to face 5th if not 6th generation manned and unmanned stealth fighters made of morphing metals and flight surfaces featuring some Star Wars-like equipment.

Nor the problem of replacing the Harriers on the Cavour should be underestimated. Since all the former RAF jump jets were purchased by the USMC, there will be few options if Italy quits: either second or third-hand AV-8Bs or a navalised Typhoon like the one offered to India (provided this version will ever be developed and compatible with the Italian ship).

Above all, Italy should remember how much the decision to keep the F-104 in service for 40 years has cost to the Italian Air Force, equipped with a jurassic fighter almost useless in real operations not even capable to ensure an effective air defense service at home. When it became evident that the amazing Starfighter could not be updated any more two gap fillers had to be hired until the Eurofighter Typhoon became available. A costly and painful move.

Although it’s still unclear whether Italy will simply downsize its procurement or withdraw from the program, what’s certain is that every canceled Italian plane will increase the costs of the remainder making their unit price if not unaffordable, less affordable.

Unit price depends also on the foreign sales. U.S. have commitments from allies to buy as many as 500 jets. Moreover, Japan has selected the F-35 as the future F-X and Lockheed Martin will build 42 stealth planes for the JASDF, a breath of fresh air that would be completely wiped out by an Italian withdrawal.

The Economist has already warned that the program is in danger of slipping into the “death spiral” where increasing unit costs would lead to cuts in number of ordered plane, leading to further costs that would boost order cuts.

In the meanwhile, the average price of each plane in “then-year” dollars has risen from $69m in 2001 to $133 million in 2011, a price that has been already declared unaffordable by Pentagon’s top weapons buyer Ashton Carter who talked to the Senate Armed Services committee in May 2011.

Image source: Lockheed Martin