Figuring out the Lockheed Martin F-35 program can sometimes be like whack-a-mole.
First flight of the short-takeoff-vertical-landing (STOVL) BF-1 aircraft on Wednesday offers a good example. Did the milestone event occur on schedule, as Lockheed and program officials claimed, or did it not?
Well, that all depends. It was supposed to fly on May 23rd, so you'd think it actually occurred 19 days late. But an engine problem identified several months ago was expected to delay first flight by 30 to 60 days. By that reckoning, Lockheed actually delivered 11 to 41 days early.
But perhaps we're just being nit-picky. After all, Lockheed's schedule for BF-1s first flight was set 18 months ago. What do a few days here or there really matter?
Falling within three weeks of the original target was certainly enough to impress Doug Pearson, Lockheed's VP for the F-35B's integrated test force.
"I've never seen [a first flight] predicted 18 months ahead of time and then taken place on that date," he told reporters.
(Pearson, by the way, should know. Before he was hired by Lockheed, Pearson commanded the air force's flight test center, and personally cleared Lockheed's F-22 for operations. More trivia: Pearson was the F-15C pilot in 1985 credited for shooting down a satellite with a specially-built missile.)
On the other hand, a more cynical observer (blush) might point out that the F-35's in-service remains delayed by 18 months, and BF-1 was originally supposed to enter flight test eight months ago.
But that isn't the only complication. Sure, BF-1 entered flight test more or less on time (according to the revised schedule). But the rest of the developmental aircraft have just been hit by a completely new delay.
I interviewed Dan Crowley, the F-35's executive vice president and general manager, yesterday. About two weeks ago, the program rolled out the third major update to the F-35's master schedule called 6.1. I originally reported this proposed schedule change in March.
This revision shifts delivery dates across the board for the rest of the 19-aircraft developmental fleet by approximately three to five months. It gives Lockheed's final assembly plant some needed extra time to build the aircraft, and the timing for the delay is based on actual manufacturing flow data accumulated so far.
The big difference between this major schedule revision and the last one is that it only changes the system development and demonstration (SDD) phase, not anything else.
The timing of the low-rate initial production phase and the flight test phase has been compressed, but both are still scheduled to end at roughly the same time as before.
As an outsider observer, it's difficult to understand how Lockheed is going to make this work.
Of course, flight tests by their nature can be unpredictable. And it's difficult to imagine a more complicated and challenging program than the F-35, which must qualify three different variants and perhaps two different engines.