F-35 jet program feels budgetary pressure

F-35 jet: Hounded by controversy for much of the past two years, the F-35 has become the poster child for troubled, vastly over-budget military weapons programs.

Tom Reynolds/Lockheed Martin Corp/Reuters/File
Two F- 35 Lightning II, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), arrive at Edwards Air Force Base in California in this May 2010 file photo.

If there's one thing the F-35 joint strike fighter program needs in 2011, it is some clear-cut signs of progress.

Hounded by controversy for much of the past two years, the F-35 has become the poster child for troubled, vastly over-budget military weapons programs.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other top officials have repeatedly complained about the performance of contractor Lockheed Martin and soaring cost estimates. Top military and civilian managers of the program were fired or changed jobs.

That's not a good track record now that the political dialogue is largely about cutting budgets and deficits.

The danger, said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace industry analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., is that if the F-35 doesn't show real and visible progress it will become more of a target.

"They need to fly it more publicly. They need to show what it can do," Aboulafia said. "I think the biggest danger is Congress gets fed up with missed deadlines and problems and decides to fix things by cutting funding, and then you miss more deadlines."

Lockheed officials say they made progress in 2010 testing the jets and learning what worked and what didn't.

The tests flights went well, said J.D. McFarlan, vice president of F-35 testing. "The pilots are pleased with the handling and flying qualities of the jets."

The test plan called for 394 flights in 2010. The final number was 410, but that's misleading. Two airplanes, both conventional-takeoff-and-landing F-35A models, flew about 30 percent more than planned at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Meanwhile, the troubled F-35B short-takeoff-vertical-landing model, the most technically demanding version, completed 20 percent fewer test flights than planned using five planes flying out the Navy's Patuxent River, Md., test center.

"We wish we were further along" with that model, McFarlan said. "With that caveat, we're pleased with how things are going."

With the F-35A jets, Lockheed and military test pilots completed all the basic flying tests, including formation flying and aerial refueling. Much of the initial testing of onboard radar and communications systems has also been conducted.

Enough work has been completed, McFarlan said, to meet the Air Force's standards to begin training pilots once planes are available.

But the F-35B has had problems with component reliability. The issues are not big problems with the engine or the lift fan, which provides the propulsion for vertical flight, but rather smaller items with vital functions, McFarlan said.

After lagging way behind for much of the year, the F-35Bs racked up 30 flights in November, "a good sign," he said.

Testing the F-35B in the critical vertical landing mode is still far behind schedule. But as planes return to flying, McFarlan said, they're accomplishing other work in low-altitude, low-speed flight that would lead to vertical landings, as well as higher-speed, higher-altitude performance tests.

"The pilots, when they get to go out and convert, do a vertical landing, do a short takeoff, they're very complimentary of the handling and flight capabilities of the aircraft," McFarlan said. The work done so far has already shown that the F-35B will be much easier to fly than its predecessor, the Marines' AV-8B Harrier, McFarlan said.

In some cases, flight data collected from F-35Bs also applies to the other versions, and software changes have been implemented.

One by one, McFarlan said, Lockheed and its suppliers are identifying the causes of reliability problems with components. New parts are designed and produced and are installed on aircraft as soon as they are available, and planes are returned to testing.

The early testing, McFarlan said, has enabled Lockheed and its suppliers to work through some issues that were expected and that in the past have proved difficult to resolve.

One example is wing roll off, an aerodynamic phenomenon that occurs when a plane nears supersonic speed. Using test data, engineers have already rewritten the computer software that operates the plane's control surfaces and tested and installed it in the test planes.

In the past, fixing problems like that "has sometimes taken years to work through," McFarlan said. "We've been able to work through that in a matter of months."

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