F-35 Fighter Confounding Critics As Flight Tests Ramp Up

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has begun to exhibit rapid progress in flight tests as pilots gradually expand the operational “envelope” for all three service variants. Development of the stealthy, single-engine fighter has been dogged by delays and rising costs, but the plane now seems to be moving forward at an accelerating pace — especially the Marine version that defense secretary Robert Gates put on two-year “probation” in January.

In February, the Marine short-takeoff/vertical-landing version designated F-35B completed twice as many test flights as planned, and test pilots told Defense News reporter Dave Majumdar that it was surprisingly easy to land the plane vertically. Vertical agility is a key performance feature that the Marine Corps is seeking in all of its future aircraft so that the service is not tethered to vulnerable bases or aircraft carriers in fighting wars. By fielding a highly survivable attack jet that can land virtually anywhere, the service hopes to surpass the agility of any other fighting force in history. It appears the Pratt & Whitney primary engine and Rolls-Royce lift-fan mesh very well in the final design, with pilots saying that even inexperienced flyers have little difficulty landing the plane vertically.

Secretary Gates said in January that Air Force and Navy variants of the F-35 are performing well, which is good news for both services and will eventually also be good news for U.S. exports. Prime contractor Lockheed Martin expects to eventually export thousands of the Air Force version to replace aging F-16s and other tactical aircraft in allied air fleets. The F-35 was designed to provide a highly versatile and maneuverable next-generation fighter in a relatively inexpensive package, but meeting that goal depends on getting through flight tests and then ramping up production to a level where economies of scale are feasible. Using identical parts and components in all three versions contributes to cost savings and interoperability across diverse warfighting units.

A key part of the F-35 story that has largely been missing in action is the unprecedented sensing, connectivity and protection afforded by the fighter’s on-board electronics. Proponents of the canceled F-22 Raptor frequently complain that the single-engine F-35 cannot match the aerodynamic maneuverability of the twin-engine F-22. That’s true, but the F-35 actually offers superior situational awareness and communications because its on-board electronics are newer. The electronic edge F-35 enjoys over every other tactical aircraft in the world may prove to be more important in future missions than maneuverability — although test pilots say it matches or surpasses the aerial agility of every fighter other than F-22. Bottom line: F-35 is beginning to look like a real winner.