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  • F-35 Testing To Accelerate, Allegedly
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 2:32 PM on Sep 15, 2009

    The first Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, both of them F-35As, should be delivered to the training unit at Eglin AFB next summer. That date is not hard to reach, according to program officials - partly because, as delivered, the jets will be firmly subsonic. The initial training flight envelope for the F-35A stops at Mach 0.8 and 30,000 feet, so the pilots of the USAF's hottest jet can look up and watch Oprah blow past them in her Global Express.

    The F-35B will be cleared to Mach 0.9. Supersonic speeds will be cleared later in the development program.

    All these limits are in place because training is expected to start before flight testing gets into gear. Deputy program office director Maj. Gen. CD Moore popped up a chart that showed the first flight dates of the ten remaining development aircraft, followed by the planned ferry dates to test locations (Edwards or Patuxent River).

    That was when I suspected that this presentation wasn't in the handout (I was right) and I dived into my FLIR Systems schwag backpack for my trusty Lumix.

    blog post photo
    Bill Sweetman/DTI

    As Graham has noted, the two production-design aircraft now flying are expected to go to Pax in early October (BF-1) and late October/November (BF-2). Four more jets are due to fly this year:  BF-3, BF-4 and AF-1, 2 and 3.

    The F-35Bs will be delivered shortly after they fly, while the three A-models will stay in Fort Worth until May-June to clear the envelope for training. One message from yesterday's press conference is that the start of training is now very important:  the first cadre of Marine instructors needs to start work on the F-35A in 2010, moving to STOVL-specific training in 2011, in order to train the first operational crews for the Marines' 2012 initial operational capability (IOC) date.

    The five remaining flight-test aircraft - one A-model, one F-35B and the three F-35Cs - are all due to fly by May 2010 and will be delivered to flight test locations by the end of September. This reflects Gen. Moore's "12-12-12" comment:  Within 12 months (end September 2010) the JSF program expects to have 12 test aircraft in service, with an average sortie rate of 12 per aircraft per month.

    One detail point:  the program has only one mission-systems aircraft at a customer flight-test location, BF-4, until June-July, when AF-3 is released from duties at Fort Worth and ferries to Edwards.

    In summary, therefore, the F-35 test plan for FY10 (which starts in two weeks) involves delivering 12 aircraft to Pax or Edwards, having delivered zero aircraft in the past two years.

    It depends on flying 12 new aircraft in FY10 (the ten remaining test aircraft plus the first two LRIP F-35As), when the program has flown two aircraft in the past two years.

    Its goal, in 12 months time, is to be flying some 150 sorties a month, which is almost 50 per cent more than the entire program has accumulated since AA-1 flew in December 2006.

    Moreover, flight test is lagging substantially behind what was expected in January of this year. The Government Accountability Office reports that FY2009 plans called for 317 sorties, when only a few dozen have been logged. Six aircraft that were due to make their first flights between March and September have not done so. Most of them seem to have slipped six months in the last nine months, and that's against an overall schedule that was slipped a year, to make it "more realistic", in May 2008.

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    January 2009 milestones

    Program officials yesterday said that these delays were caused by problems which have been solved, but I guess we'll see about that. Stephen Trimble recorded my question and Moore's response.

    My other issue with the program office's current sunny optimism is that there is a disconnect between predictions that ground-based labs will allow problems to be fixed before flight-testing - Lockheed Martin's Eric Branyan said yesterday that when an aircraft goes to test "it's not a case of 'will it work', it's how well it works" - and that messy thing called reality.

    At the root of the most recent delays was the fact that the jets being rolled out in the past year were far from ready to fly, requiring more time than expected to prepare for testing.
    That's entirely normal - what's unusual, indeed unique, is the JSF team's prediction that everything from now on will accelerate, and that the slowest flight-test program in major-project history will, in the next 12 months, become one of the fastest.

    Tags: ar99, afa09, f-35

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