Tuesday, January 18, 2011

F-35B Shows Progress With 5 Vertical Landings: Analysts

SOURCE DEFENCE NEWS-A series of five vertical landings over eight days shows that the troubled F-35B Joint Strike Fighter is getting back on track, analysts said.
An F-35B on a March 2010 test flight. Lockheed Martin says earlier issues have been solved after five vertical landing tests earlier this month. (Andy Wolfe / Lockheed Martin)
The tests, performed between Jan. 6 and 13, are among the 42 that must be completed before the aircraft can be tested at sea onboard an amphibious assault ship.
Prior to Jan. 6, short take-off and vertical-landing operations had been suspended due to problems with doors located on the upper surface of the aircraft.
Analysts agreed that this series of vertical landings signals the problematic vertical landing variant is starting to recover from a series of technical glitches that resulted in schedule slips and the redesigns of some ancillary equipment and structural elements of the aircraft. These elements include components in the propulsion system, an insufficiently robust structural bulkhead and hinges on some doors on the top surface of the aircraft.
"I think it does [signal that the program is getting back on track]. This program has never been quite as troubled as many critics thought. I think it's probably progressed more smoothly than other fighter development program with the possible exception of the F-16," said Loren Thompson, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, Arlington, Va. The F-16's development proceeded so smoothly because of the simple nature of the original version of that aircraft, he said.
Comparatively, the earlier development of Lockheed Martin's other fifth-generation fighter, the F-22 Raptor, faced far greater difficulties, Thompson said. He said that the challenges faced by the F-35 are common teething problems encountered in most developmental programs.
"Lockheed Martin, they definitely learned from the F-22 experience. The Air Force is sort of vindicated in taking an F-35 design that based in large part on the F-22 system," Thompson said.
Analyst Richard Aboulafia at the Teal Group, Fairfax, Va., said that the technical challenges facing the F-35 can be turned around within the two-year probationary span allotted by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to fix the program.
"The problem with this program, given two years of leeway, is not technological. It's budgetary and political," he said.
The U.S. Air Force conventional take-off version and U.S. Navy carrier variant are doing well in testing, both Aboulafia and Thompson said. Both variants are ahead of schedule in their flight tests.
"We started getting the F-35B back on track toward the end of last year, when we resolved some of the key component issues and began achieving flight rates similar to those of the [conventional take-off] jets, but the [vertical landings] this month certainly have moved the needle for us in terms of STOVL-mode flight. We are seeing excellent results," said Lockheed's Kent.

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