Aerospace blogger and journalist Dave Majumdar, a contributor to The DEW Line, has interviewed Lockheed Martin and F-35 program officials in advance of roll-out of CF-1, the first prototype of the naval variant.
Debuting on the July 28 is the US Navy's first all-aspect stealth aircraft, the F-35C.
Designed to meet the stringent requirements for a "very long range, very low observable, first day of war strike aircraft", the "F-35 has all-aspect stealth", said Steve Weatherspoon, Lockheed Martin's Deputy Test Verification officer for the F-35 Integrated Test Force.
The naval variant "was designed from the beginning to operate in the maritime environment", said Steve O'Bryan, a Lockheed Martin Vice President for Business Development. According to O'Bryan, the aircraft's radar absorbent coatings were designed to be able to withstand daily exposure to the high temperatures, salt water, and chemicals encountered onboard an aircraft carrier. O'Bryan adds that the new coatings will be "resilient" enough that the aircraft's radar cross section will not suffer when it is scratched, chipped, or cracked "during day-to day operations in a naval environment". This should greatly reduce the maintenance burden for the Navy, he said.
Craig Williams, head of Business Development for the F-35C at Lockheed Martin, explains that the new coatings are "less ornate" than previous incarnations of radar absorbent materials (RAM). The new compounds dispense with the "silver paint" primers found in previous designs, "completely eliminating" the hazardous and difficult substance.
In order to validate the performance of the new low-observable (LO) materials, Williams explained that "coupons" of the compound are being tested "on the beach" and "at sea" for "days, weeks, months, and years at a time". The new coatings have also been tested in a specially designed chamber where they have been exposed to "salt fog" and gases such as sulfur dioxide, which would be encountered under operational conditions.
To ensure that the LO seal of the aircraft is not routinely broken, Williams explains that "natural openings" are utilized for maintenance as often as possible. These "natural openings" include the wheel wells and the weapons bays among others. Where access is not possible through these openings, access panels are provided. O'Bryan points out the baseline requirements for the JSF program mandate that the jet be "twice as reliable as a late model F-16 or F/A-18", which should substantially reduce the need to break open the LO seals under operation conditions.
Furthermore, "everything faced during F-22 operations has been improved upon", Williams said, reflecting upon the "lessons learned" from that program. Recently, he added that he had attended a meeting where JSF program officials met with their F-22 counterparts. According to Williams, the verdict from the F-22 officials was that "every possible lesson learned" from the Raptor had been incorporated into the Lightning II.
First flight for the F-35C is scheduled for the end of the year, after which the aircraft will head to NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, in the first half of 2010.