Just a couple of years ago, critics of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program were pointing to a problem with the tail hook on the carrier version or C-variant as another sign that the program was doomed to failure. Land testing had shown that the design of the tail hook, the device meant to capture the arresting wire on the deck of an aircraft carrier, and its placement on the aircraft’s fuselage was causing it to bounce and thereby miss the wire. Admittedly, at the time, the program was going through a difficult patch — something that has happened to every new aircraft program for the past half century. But for the critics, this was another reason to pile on, declaring the JSF to be a bad design and doomed to failure.
Fast forward a few years and guess what? Problem solved. On November 4, 2014 at approximately 3:18 pm EST an F-35C made the first ever successful landing on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. The redesigned tail hook worked the very first time. Truth be told, there was never a question that the test was going to be successful. After redesigning the tail hook, Lockheed Martin conducted dozens of test landings to make sure the new design worked properly. The next day, the Nimitz conducted the first ever successful catapult launch of an F-35.
The JSF program is following the evolutionary path toward maturity. That doesn’t mean there is not more work to be done, testing to be accomplished and problems to be solved. But with each passing day, the enormous team that is involved in the program — the engineers, software designers, system integrators and production line workers — are becoming smarter about the aircraft and its components and more skilled at their work. They are solving problems, bringing down costs and improving quality.
A case in point is the recent engine fire that temporarily grounded the F-35 fleet. Within days the cause of the problem had been identified and work begun by Pratt & Whitney on a solution. Two short/mid-term fixes have already been identified and are being applied to the current fleet. A permanent solution is expected by the end of the year. At the same time, Pratt & Whitney continues to bring down the price of each lot of engines.
The program has progressed to the point that the program manager, Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan, USAF has proposed shifting the acquisition strategy from a series of annual low rate production contracts to block buys, at least for international partners. Block buys create opportunities for lower costs from larger, more economical production lots and from limiting any design changes. This would allow other countries to get a better price for their purchases than will the U.S. military. Perhaps the Pentagon should consider moving at the same time to full rate production, thereby allowing the U.S. military to take advantage of block buy savings.
Find Archived Articles: