After years of skeptical media coverage, the turbulence surrounding the Pentagon’s F-35 fighter program seems to be dissipating. That’s happening partly because the Obama Administration restructured an overly-aggressive development plan and partly because prime contractor Lockheed Martin fixed various issues with the plane. But another reason officials like Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey are finding nice things to say about F-35 lately is that the fighter is exhibiting outstanding performance in flight tests.
The latest good news for F-35 came on May 4 from London’s Daily Telegraph, which sent its defense correspondent to witness testing of the vertical-takeoff version being bought by the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps. Britain has a special stake in the F-35B, as it is designated, because its vertical agility is made possible by a Rolls Royce lift-fan in the middle of the fuselage. The country retired its Harrier jumpjets amidst much controversy in 2010, and its plans to build a new class of aircraft carriers hinge on the success of Harrier’s F-35 successor.
So far, the British pilots flying the plane at the U.S. Navy’s Patuxent test facility in Maryland seem very pleased. One of them, a veteran of Harrier missions in Iraq and Bosnia, described F-35 as “light years ahead of Harrier in terms of what it can do.” The Telegraph’s account of the plane’s performance described how it approached the landing area at 150 miles per hour, and then “hung motionless in the sky for a full minute at around 100 feet before making a gentle landing on the tarmac.”
It is precisely this feature that has made the Marine Corps such a strong supporter of the plane. Marines like the situational awareness, survivability and versatility of F-35B, but what they love is that it can land pretty much anywhere. With F-35B, U.S. and British warfighters don’t need a runway to deliver cutting-edge air power into the middle of a war zone. And judging from the comments of the British test pilots, the fighter will be able to do a lot of other things once it is there. The test pilot interviewed in theTelegraph story called the plane “a phenomenal flying machine,” saying that everything that was wrong with Harrier has been corrected in the F-35 design.
Some people in Washington still have doubts about F-35. But there don’t appear to be any doubters among the pilots who have actually flown the plane. They seem to share Senator John McCain’s view that F-35 could end up being the greatest combat aircraft in history. And prime contractor Lockheed Martin says that six years from now, the Air Force version of the plane will be selling for only slightly more than what a legacy F-16 fighter costs today — which probably means tens of billions of dollars in exports as the plane is sold to overseas allies, and tens of thousands of jobs.