What a bad ride it's been for the F-35 program since February 1.
First, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates decapitated the F-35 Joint Program Office, denied Lockheed Martin's $614 million incentive fee and declined up to five of the 48 aircraft planned for the Fiscal 2011 budget. Then, the Defense Contracts Management Agency dumped
hundreds of pages on its web site documenting Lockheed's painful production breakdowns. Finally, members of Congress aimed pot-shots at any Pentagon official remotely associated with F-35 procurement, with Sen Joseph Lieberman suggesting
the military might be better off with fourth-generation fighter jets.
On top of everything else, Lockheed chief executive officer Robert Stevens last week warned
Wall Street analysts about flight tests results. During the first three weeks of April, Lockheed had completed only 5 of the 29 sorties planned for April, Stevens said.
But could Stevens' burst of candor hide a clever trick? After so much doom and gloom, maybe Stevens issued a warning merely to set us up a dramatic finale. Perhaps Lockheed could recapture some lost momentum with a one-week, 24-sortie turnaround to remain on track?
The answer, it turns out, is no.
To be fair, the F-35 program came really close. In the end, the program's flight test team completed 27 of 29 planned sorties in April. On Friday, 30 April, the program recorded five flights. The day before, the program recorded another first, with three aircraft flying simultaneously. Those three aircraft -- AF-1, AF-2 and BF-2 -- seem to be workhorses of a resurgent flight test program for the F-35.
Getting the flight test program back on track is huge. So far, a total of seven aircraft have flown 197 times, with about half of those flights recorded by a single aircraft -- AA-1 -- which is now retired for live-fire testing.
More than 4,800 flight tests remain scheduled over the next five years. Moreover, the first carrier variant still hasn't flown. [By the way, CF-1 is required to fly by the end of May, not the end of April, as I reported previously.]
Completing 27 flights out of 29 scheduled in April isn't a breakthrough achievement, but it may offer hope the flight test program is finally stabilizing. In the first quarter of 2010, the program actually exceeded the three-month goal by four flights.
So the F-35 was up by four flights in March, and down by two flights in April. That means they're two flights ahead after four months. That's not bad.
It's too early to call it a trend or even real progress. But F-35 officials might be forgiven for a little celebrating. After this program's recent past, non-bad news right now probably feels pretty good.