Lockheed waits to put F-35 to the test again

 

jsftestflightFive months have passed since flight testing of the first F-35 Lightning II was suspended after the discovery of a potentially dangerous electrical problem. Lockheed Martin officials say they're confident that the plane will fly again this month and that the delay won't throw the nearly $300 billion joint strike fighter program off track. But they're waiting to hear if Pentagon officials will approve a revised testing plan that aims to save hundreds of millions of dollars by eliminating two test airplanes and 20 percent of the planned test flights.


By BOB COX,  Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Oct.8 2007 - Dan Crowley, Lockheed's executive vice president of manufacturing and development for the F-35, says that test flights should resume soon and that he is confident of quickly making up lost time.
"It's taken a little longer to get back in the air than we'd hoped," Crowley said, but he added the downtime has been used to perform maintenance and upgrades on the aircraft and to install updated software. Lockheed needs to demonstrate that it can maintain the F-35's development schedule and keep it on budget.

As the Iraq and Afghanistan wars continue, costing hundreds of billions of dollars and demanding much of the military's equipment, the Pentagon, the armed forces and Congress are all looking for added funds. The F-35 is "in the mix for such a large amount of money that inevitably someone's going to look at it" as a source of funds for their program, said Loren Thompson, a defense industry consultant and chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute think tank. After 18 nearly flawless test flights, the F-35 had a malfunction in an electrical control box that required an emergency, but smooth and safe, landing. Engineers quickly pinpointed the problem, redesigned the electrical components and sent the new designs to the manufacturer. Lockheed hoped to have the plane back in the air by the end of August. Crowley said that as Lockheed officials and engineers examined the aircraft, other potential problems were discovered and fixed. After the hot landing, the wheels and tires were replaced, and the landing gear was removed, inspected, tested and reinstalled. Other maintenance was performed. Getting the new parts redesigned and manufactured has taken time, and Lockheed is awaiting final technical and safety approvals from the government before resuming flight testing. "There are just all sorts of common testing issues where you learn about your design," Crowley said. He said program officials are taking a "very conservative" approach to testing and will not allow other flights until they're sure the plane is ready.

The goal is to complete a minimum of 17 more flight tests over North Texas, preferably by year's end. Once those are accomplished, the test airplane will be flown to Edwards Air Force Base in California for a month or more of testing. During the test delay, Crowley said, the aircraft's aerial refueling system was checked out, tested and certified ready for use. As critics in and out of the government warned repeatedly, the F-35 was launched in late 2001 with a very ambitious timetable and budget. Within two years, weight and other technical problems surfaced. The government delayed the program by a year, redesigned all but the first aircraft and added billions to the program's budget.

Not unexpectedly, other technical problems have arisen along the way, requiring Lockheed and its contractors to spend the $24 billion development budget faster than planned. Engine contractor Pratt & Whitney has also run into technical problems on its end. Rather than ask the Pentagon and Congress for more money, Lockheed and program officials have looked for savings internally and proposed a major overhaul of the test program. The plan calls for building two fewer test airplanes and trimming 1,400 test flights. The revised plan was approved by the Pentagon office overseeing the program, headed by Air Force Gen. Charles Davis, and sent to John Young, acting undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.
A Pentagon official said the revised testing plan was "under discussion" by Young's office. Crowley says Lockheed and the other contractors are confident that they have learned enough about the F-35 in the early tests so they can cut the number of test aircraft from 15 to 13, reduce the number of flights and still perform all the required testing successfully. "We're much smarter midway in the program about the jet, how we use and how we plan to test it," he said.

The initial test aircraft has proven so reliable that Lockheed believes that it can conduct more tests per flight than is typical in military aircraft programs. The two jets to be cut are mission systems planes, testing all the systems aboard the aircraft. Crowley said those tests can be replicated in the ground laboratory at Lockheed, on the CATB flying test airplane, a heavily modified 737, or, if necessary, with other F-35 test aircraft. The goal is "to live within the resources we have," he said, without having to ask Congress for more money. "If you're going to do that, you need to make the test decisions before you spend the money on the jets."

Lockheed's experience with the F-22 Raptor and other military programs has shown that what worked in the labs often doesn't work well when installed in an aircraft operating in realistic conditions. It took years of additional testing, modifications and software rewriting to make the F-22's complex, computer-controlled electronics systems work as promised. "The difference is the F-22 did not have the investment in the labs to test these systems that we have," Crowley said, adding the F-35 program is 10 years ahead in the development and testing of technology. Work continues at the Lockheed plant on the second test aircraft, a short-takeoff-vertical-landing version of the F-35 that will encompass all of the redesign work undertaken to lower weight and improve the manufacturing process. Crowley said the electrical systems on the aircraft should be turned on this month. A ceremonial rollout, at which senior Marine Corps and Pentagon leaders are expected, is scheduled for Dec. 18. The second test aircraft is not scheduled to fly until May or June.