Aviation Insider: A Troubled Bird

Aviation Insider: A Troubled Bird

The F-35 Approaches U.S. Service

By Robert F. Dorr

Col. Andrew J. “Drifter” Toth, commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing, the “Nomads” at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, was talking about the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter when he acknowledged a flight restriction on the airplane. “We’re not allowed to fly within 25 miles of thunder or lightning,” said Toth, referring to the aircraft named the Lightning II. The F-35 can be found in small batches at half a dozen bases — 50 had been delivered at the start of the year — but Eglin, in the Florida panhandle, has the largest number. Eglin is, very simply, the center of the
universe for the F-35 world. In Air Force jargon, it’s the “formal training unit,” or FTU, and in Navy talk, it’s the “fleet replacement squadron” or FRS. Both terms refer to the training of pilots and maintainers who are being introduced to a new aircraft type. The wing comes under the Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command.

The F-35 can be found in small batches at half a dozen bases — 50 had been delivered at the start of the year — but Eglin, in the Florida panhandle, has the largest number. Eglin is, very simply, the center of the universe for the F-35 world. In Air Force jargon, it’s the “formal training unit,” or FTU, and in Navy talk, it’s the “fleet replacement squadron” or FRS. Both terms refer to the training of pilots and maintainers who are being introduced to a new aircraft type. The wing comes under the Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command.

Toth’s F-35 is one aircraft type but it comes in three flavors, the land-based F-35A for the Air Force, the short takeoff/vertical landing or STOVL F-35B for the Marine Corps, and the carrier-based F-35C for the Navy. Toth’s wing has three squadrons from the three service branches — the 58th Fighter Squadron “Gorillas” for the F-35A, commanded by Lt. Col. Lee Kloos; VMFAT-501 “Warlords” for the Marine Corps F-35B, commanded by Lt. Col. David Berke and VFA-101 “Grim Reapers,” which probably should be designated VFAT-101 but isn’t, for the Navy F-35C, commanded by Cdr. John Enfield. Although Toth has a Marine deputy and uniforms of all colors scattered around the Eglin ramp (including Army observers), the Eglin wing technically isn’t a joint billet in Pentagon terms. “We couldn’t be more ‘joint’ if you injected it into our DNA,” said deputy wing commander Marine Corps Col. Arthur “Turbo” Tomassetti. “But it doesn’t count as joint for assignment purposes.”

Eglin had 22 aircraft on site on January 31 (nine F-35A, 11 Marine Corps F-35B and two British F-35B; the wing will receive its first F-35C in the fall). Other F-35s are at the test centers at Edwards Air Force Base, California and Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, undergoing weapons development at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, in an operational squadron (VMA-121 “Green Knights”) at Yuma, Arizona, and assisting with development work at the Lockheed Martin plant at Fort Worth, Texas. Everyone in the F-35 program acknowledges that there have been cost overruns, scheduling delays, and technical problems, but the people who work on, and fly, the F-35 believe they are the wave of the future. Flight restrictions on all versions and a temporary grounding of the F-35B version are expected to be resolved soon and the program is expected to pick up speed introducing the aircraft. The Pentagon wants 2,443 F-35s (680 for the Navy and Marine Corps with a more detailed breakdown not yet decided upon, plus 1,763 for the Air Force) at a cost reported in the mainstream press as $396 billion (a total that includes overseas purchasers), although analysts believe budget constraints may eventually reduce that number.

The F-35 is dual-role, meaning it’s expected to excel in both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, enabling the U.S. military to replace hundreds of A-10C Thunderbolt IIs, F-16C/D Fighting Falcons, and F/A-18C/D Hornets. To live up to its advance billing, it will need to be able to perform close air support as well as the A-10 and win a dogfight as readily as an F-16 — and pilots say it can.

In marketing parlance, the F-35 is a “fifth generation” fighter. Its stealth — the ability to evade radar detection — places it a full generation ahead of every other fighter in the world except the F-22 Raptor and some Russian and Chinese prototypes. There is another dual aspect of the F-35 program, namely the Pentagon’s policy of “concurrency,” under which the aircraft is being tested and placed into service simultaneously. It has never been tried on this scale before. It’s an ambitious concept aimed at saving time and money. Supporters say concurrency will enable users to work out bugs as they go along and permit combat readiness sooner. Critics argue that concurrency isn’t working well and is causing false starts and niche delays throughout the program.


What it is

The F-35 Lightning II is straightforward in appearance and design. In a world where most fighters have two engines, the F-35 is a single-engine aircraft powered by a 25,000-pound dry thrust Pratt & Whitney F135 turbofan, with 40,000 pounds of thrust in afterburner, more than enough to enable an F-35A pilot to accelerate while flying straight up. Two successive U.S. administrations and many in Congress have gotten their way by making the F135 the only engine available to the worldwide F-35 fleet, which could eventually exceed 4,000 airplanes. Proponents say the engine has proven its reliability. Recently retired Lockheed test pilot Jon Beesley pointed out that a colleague, test pilot Jeff Knowles, performed half a dozen air starts in the first F-35 without engine problems. A plan to have an alternate engine available (as in the F-16 program) would have used the 25,000-pound dry thrust General Electric/Rolls-Royce F136 turbofan, also with 40,000 pounds of thrust in afterburner. That plan is now defunct.

The F-35 is a tricycle-gear, single-engine fighter. The pilot sits on a Martin Baker UF-16B version of the Mk. 16 ejection seat, a derivative of the seat employed on the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Beechcraft T-6A Texan II. “The seat,” said Lockheed Martin test plot Bill “Gigs” Gigliotti, “has specifications that far exceed legacy seats: we can escape at 600 knots, where in legacy aircraft at 450 knots we were taking the pilot’s life and rolling the dice.” The pilot uses a sidestick controller (rather than a stick located between the knees) as on the F-16. Visibility through the one-piece canopy is “extraordinary,” says Gigliotti.

The F-35A will be built only as single-seater, like the F-22 Raptor, but unlike the F-15 Eagle, F-16, and F/A-18. Officials acknowledge that second seat would be especially useful in the early stages of pilot training but say they can work around the issue with extensive use of simulators. No provision seems to have been made for tourists like the author of this article, who would like a backseat ride if there were a backseat.

The F-35 employs a Northrop Grumman AN/APG-81 active, electronically-scanned array radar and has electro-optical sensors distributed over the aircraft as part of the AN/AAS-37 system that acts as a missile warning system and can assist in navigation and night operations. Armament includes a new 25-mm. GAU-12/U cannon with 180 rounds, the first new gun in an Air Force fighter for generations. The internal weapons bay of the F-35A is unusual for a fighter but is essential to preserving stealth. The “hole,” as pilots call it, cries out for new thinking about the design of the entire aircraft.

“We were asked to build a combat airplane,” said Beesley—one that can perform both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. “That entails a weapons bay. A hole is very heavy, by the way.” Nevertheless, Beesley said the idea works. “From the moment of takeoff, I’m in combat configuration while my adversary may not be,” he said. Beesley also noted that the thrust-to-weight ratio of the F-35A — roughly 1:1 — is criticized by some, “but that’s because we carry everything for the mission inside the aircraft. We need no external tanks.” The “hole” will be expected to accommodate the 1,000-pound GBU-32 Joint Direct Attack Munition, the AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missile, and the B61-11 nuclear gravity bomb. The AIM-120, with its solid-fuel rocket motor, is fired from its position on the door of the F-35 weapon bay while conventional bombs are carried on a bomb rack inside the belly.

In addition to its other capabilities, the F-35A is noteworthy in that it is a powerhouse of net-centric sensors and communications equipment, yet it dispenses with the now-traditional head-up display, or HUD. “All sensors are on the airplane now and they’re all ready to go,” said Beesley. “We have all sensors on the airplane working the way they’re supposed to. We’re completely configured to go into combat yet we can match airplanes that are in an air show configuration.” The helmet-mounted cueing sight that substitutes for a physical HUD is having teething troubles and has been found to vibrate when a pilot most needs it to be stable. Officials say a fix is coming soon.

The A- and B-model F-35s share a wing area of 460 square feet, while the F-35C has an area of 668 square feet. The B model employs a lift fan in conjunction with the engine, providing thrust of 40,000 pounds that allows it to take off and land vertically while the F-35C model has the heaviest weight empty at approximately 35,000 pounds. Another glitch in the roster of F-35 birthing pangs: problems with the F-35C carrier tailhook design, which experts say are on the way to being solved.


F-35 history

The F-35 emerged from the Joint Advanced Strike Technology, or JAST program, which dates back to 1988 and to the 1990 Common Affordable Lightweight Fighter project, or CALF, for a stealth warplane to replace all fighter and attack aircraft in all the U.S. military service branches. In 1994, with the Cold War and Desert Storm behind, Congress ordered JAST and CALF merged into the Joint Strike Fighter, or JSF, project.

JSF then progressed to a November 16, 1996 developmental contract with a fly-off competition — although it was officially called a demonstration rather than a competition — between the Boeing X-32, also called the “Flying Bathtub” or “Super Bug,” and the sleeker Lockheed X-35. Soon after the program began, Lockheed became Lockheed Martin.

The builders made two examples of each aircraft. Boeing chief test pilot Fred Knox took the conventional X-32A for its first flight on September 18, 2000 from the company’s Phantom Works in Palmdale, California. Boeing pilot Phil O’Donoughe did the honors when STOVL X-32B (c/n 1002) completed its maiden flight on March 29, 2001. With extensive use of composites and digital technology, the beefy Boeing was said to be the riskier of the two JSF designs. Because it used a direct lift system with thrust vectoring instead of its competitor’s ducted-fan design, the X-32 needed massive front air intakes to provide enough airflow into the engine at slow speeds. This gave the aircraft the appearance that it was smiling, which is what many observers did on viewing its corpulent shape.

The competing X-35A made its initial flight a month behind its rival on October 24, 2001 with Lockheed Martin test pilot Tom Morgenfeld at the controls. Like its counterpart, its maiden voyage took the aircraft from Palmdale to Edwards Air Force Base in California. To mark the occasion, Lockheed Martin’s house organ duly noted that, “The design chosen for production (based on either the X-32 or X-35) will become the F-24, not the F-32 or the F-35.” This was a sign that the builder knew more about the military designation system than the Pentagon. One of the first test pilots on the X-plane project was Eglin’s Tomassetti.

The conventional X-35A flight test effort ended November 22, 2000, after 27 test-flights, and the airframe was rebuilt as the V/STOL X-35B. The second airframe in this series was the carrier-capable X-35C first flown on February 12, 2001.

On October 26, 2001, the Pentagon announced that Lockheed Martin had what was likely to become the largest military contract ever, a potential $200 billion bid (since increased to $396 billion) to build the Joint Strike Fighter. Air Force Secretary James Roche chose the out-of-sequence F-35 appellation. In choosing the X-35 over the X-32, the Air Force violated a principle to which it had adhered religiously in previous aircraft competitions (F-105/F-107, A-10/A-9, F-16/F-17, and F-22/F-23). For the first time ever, it failed to choose the uglier competitor. A Pentagon officer quipped that the X-32 should have been chosen because, in a dogfight, the opposing pilot would laugh himself to death.

Beesley became the first person to pilot a Joint Strike Fighter when he took off at Fort Worth, Texas, in the first F-35A on December 15, 2006. Thus began deliveries, tests, and operational efforts with today’s F-35 fleet.


F-35 problems

Delays, cost, and technical issues are all important in any discussion of the F-35. The recent history of the F-35 includes a variety of delays. The Eglin wing was up and running and initially scheduled to receive aircraft 10 months before the first F-35 arrived, not on October 1, 2010 as once planned but on July 14, 2011.

Most analysts feel that no one really knows the total cost of the F-35 program or of an individual aircraft. In 2010, the Pentagon said that delays and cost overruns had resulted in a cost per aircraft that exceeded the original contract by 50%. According to the Pentagon’s Selected Acquisition Report subsequently released last March, a single F-35A now costs $184 million, roughly double the price once predicted. (One strong sales point for the F-35 was that it would be far less costly than the F-22 Raptor, which, as it turned out, had the same sticker price as the Pentagon figure). According to the Lockheed Martin website, the “average estimated unit recurring flyaway cost in 2010 dollars” is “about” $64 million per aircraft. Getting into a discussion of developmental versus flyaway cost, or “then-year dollars,” is enough to give anyone a headache. The bottom line is that it ain’t as cheap as once claimed, and it doesn’t cost as much as some critics allege.

All new aircraft have technical problems. The F-35 has had more, over a longer span of years, than most. A 2011 Pentagon study cited 13 major problems. The F-35’s integrated power package was “unreliable and difficult to service.” Safety concerns surrounded lightning protection and thermal management and fire hazards were present in terms of the fuel dump system. The Pentagon also said, remarkably, that the F-35 airframe was unlikely to last through the planned lifespan of the aircraft.

Other problems vary, and none appear to be beyond solution. They include:

Noise: Local protests have brought about a reduction in the total of F-35s scheduled for Eglin from 107 to 59. The F-35, it turns out, is twice as loud as the twin-engine F-15, reaching up to 90 decibels. An Air Force study conducted at Eglin determined that once aircraft sound levels exceed 75 decibels, more than one third of nearby residents become “highly annoyed.” Citizen protests over noise levels are also taking place in Burlington, Vermont, where the first Air National Guard F-35As will be assigned.

F-35B fuel-line: The Pentagon grounded all 15 F-35Bs (11 at Eglin, three at Patuxent, and one at Yuma) after a January 18 mishap in which a fuel line associated with the STOVL lift fan detached and fell on a training flight at Eglin. At press time, plans were under way to subject all F-35B fuel lines to CT scans, a process that could take many weeks. The F-35A and F-35C versions are not affected because they don’t use the same fuel lines.

F-35C tailhook: The original design failed to snag the simulated aircraft-carrier arresting wire in early testing because the point of the hook was not sharp enough to scoop under the wire and securely grab it. Essentially, the hook was bouncing upon landing, reducing the likelihood of a successful “trap,” or arrested landing. A second issue is a dampener device that was found to be too weak to maintain a hold on the wire. The first issue appears to have been resolved with a redesign and with F-35C carrier-landing tests at Lakehurst, New Jersey and the manufacturer told Flight Journal at press time that the tailhook issue would be completely resolved by spring and that F-35C carrier suitability trials will take place next year.

Helmet-mounted cueing sight/display system: Already discussed above, this sight places a “virtual” head-up display on the pilot’s visor. The manufacturer says it is making progress with “shudder,” or vibration, but also acknowledges that it is exploring alternatives, including the possibility of a physical HUD on the instrument panel. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James “Tamer” Amos, a fighter pilot, told Reuters, “The helmet is a critical piece that needs to be solved,” Amos said.


F-35 prospects

In dozens of interviews with people in the F-35 program, it was clear that all believe the problems will be solved and a bright future will open up for the fighter being assembled in the mile-long, windowless Lockheed Martin plant at Fort Worth, Texas. At the Texas plant, many F-35 systems are being developed in ground-based laboratories and on the Cooperative Avionics Test Bed, a converted 737 that acts as an airborne laboratory. The Lockheed Martin CATBird has made 140 flights in support of the F-35 and has deployed frequently to Eglin and Edwards. The F-35 itself will start showing up in more locations soon.

Updated: May 13, 2013 — 5:19 PM


  1. The A-10 may be getting gray but I don’t see an F-35 as a viable replacement.
    No 30 mm gatling gun, no structural masking or armor against ground fire, a single engine and probably not the loiter time for CAS. It may turn out to be a fine airplane but it’s not going to replace the Warthog. The gtound pounders will see the difference.

    1. James:

      You’ve made lots of good points, but I think your last sentence contains the biggest one…a lot of folks who’ve found themselves on the business end of the U.S. military have come to know and fear that distinctive A-10 silhouette. It just seems to scream death, from what I’ve read, and troops who learn some Hogs are headed their way are quick to hunker down or scatter.

      Mike H.

  2. not worth it…

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