Feb 18, 2014

Navy F-35C Prepares for Ship Trials, Faces Headwinds

Naval aviators plan to fly the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter from an aircraft carrier at sea this fall. Pilots who have operated the aircraft say they are cautiously optimistic about its future despite a string of technical setbacks.
Carrier tests are scheduled for October. Aviation commanders hope the tests will provide early answers to questions about the role of the F-35C as part of an air wing.
The F-35C faces several more years of tests before it is ready to join carrier air wings. Whereas the Marine Corps is determined to start operations with its vertical-takeoff F-35B as early as 2016, the Navy is in less of a hurry. At the earliest, the Navy has said the F-35C would be operational in 2019.
Flight tests are planned through 2017, and operational-level trials would begin later.
The priorities for the Navy’s F-35C are to finish software development and to fix glitches in the helmet-mounted displays. Then the Navy will have to decide how to incorporate the F-35C into an already crowded air wing.
A carrier air wing typically has anywhere from 44 to 54 fighter jets. The Navy expects that for the foreseeable future, most of the fighters in the air wing will be Super Hornets, and that the F-35C will have a niche role as an airborne intelligence nerve center.
The F-35C will be predominantly an “information collector and distributor in the air wing”. As the Navy’s only “stealth” aircraft that can fly undetected by radar, it will be prepared to go alone into highly contested areas.
Routine aircraft operations and maintenance aboard the carrier will change dramatically when the F-35C joins the fleet. The high-tech materials that give the F-35 stealth properties require special care.
A more significant concern is the performance of the redesigned tail hook, which has been tested six times so far.
One of the most anticipated features of the F-35C is an automated landing system called “delta flight path” that would take the pressure off aviators to nail landings on moving ships.
A potential weakness of the F-35 is not the aircraft but its weapons.
The Pentagon plans to buy nearly 100 F-35s of the three variants by 2018.

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