New stealth tricks in store for F-35?

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.

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10 Responses to New stealth tricks in store for F-35?

  1. EG 16 July, 2009 at 4:21 pm #

    “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.”

    Okay, after a good laugh…why can’t engineers remember that things break in new and interesting ways once they get out to the fleet? It maybe reliable today. What about in 10 years?

  2. SMSgt Mac 16 July, 2009 at 6:23 pm #

    EG’s point about breaking in ‘new and interesting ways’ once in the fleet is too true. A corrolary to that dynamic is that when you get new capabilities (not just new systems with the same capabilities) into the operators hands they find new and interesting things to do with it which brings even more new and interesting ways to break things. The JSF design goes a long way beyond the F-22 and B-2 designs in terms of component location and minimum number of external access points needed to get to the components. I’ d say that is easily one of the two biggest lesson-learned for maintaining LO systems that DoD has experienced to date.

    It’s good to see Lockmart (and DoD) has gotten more realistic about LO maintainability. I remember when, before the flyoff, many in the company had a crazy idea that LO could be done for ‘free’.

  3. Johnny 16 July, 2009 at 7:41 pm #

    Somehow I doubt those stealth coatings are going to hold up for long at sea. They don’t hold up well on land either, if the F-22 is anything to go by.

  4. EG 16 July, 2009 at 9:20 pm #

    What’s going to be fun is doing the corrosion prevention work on the aircraft while on the boat.

    I suspect the coatings will be allowed to deteriorate onboard the ship in the interest of maintainability and man-hours. They would be reapplied if the balloon goes up.

    However, IF I was running a Maintenance Control, I would insist that 4 birds be kept in full coating at all times to enable mission training and so my Crud Crew would know what they’re doing with the coatings by having the experience to maintain and install it.

  5. eg 16 July, 2009 at 9:27 pm #

    Oh yeah, and I guess there is no scheduled or phased maintenance on the airplane?
    This must be worlds first Mk I eyeball phase…walk out, look it over…yeps! she’s good! Lets sign off that paperwork!

  6. ELP 16 July, 2009 at 11:17 pm #

    The 2008 Navy League brief mentioned the salty duty friendly RAS/RAM as Stephen mentions above.

    Remember that the B-2 was originally designed for a one time mission (nuke)

    F-22 maintenance actions that require L.O. refurb are around 5 percent.

    F-35 design… 1-2 percent.

  7. Chockblock 18 July, 2009 at 3:53 am #

    Before anyone gets carried away, lets give LockMart’s team the benefit of the doubt. My uncle was an E-8 helo crew chief in the Navy. He had a whole department just dedicated to corrosion control. When the F-18 and SH-60 first got to the fleet their were problems with their composite materials. the F-18′s brakes could burn releasing toxic gases, the SH-60 had so many systems faults the former H-3 crews and pilots called them “trash-60′s”.

    Yet these aircraft are now the backbone of the fleet. Their will be maintenance headaches and glitches. But the Air Force and Navy crews will get it done.

  8. Zack Crete 22 July, 2010 at 12:43 am #

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  10. JV 25 July, 2013 at 4:33 pm #

    Why are they getting quotes from someone in the business office rather than someone more hands on in development like engineering? PR rubbish.

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