Non-bad news about F-35

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.


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7 Responses to Non-bad news about F-35

  1. John S. 1 May, 2010 at 3:37 am #

    Any word on the quality of testing this flurry of 22 last-minutes flights actually produced?

  2. RSF 2 May, 2010 at 12:40 am #

    It speaks volumes about where this program really is, when simply getting the planes in the air for a short period of time is considered a major accomplishment.

    I’ll be happy when I see F-35′s with about 1000 test flights under the belt and actually doing things other then simply flying.

    Still, LM is trying and are close to the latest schedule, so I will take the pessimist hat off for now.

    Lets hope May is equally fruitful.

  3. SMSgt Mac 2 May, 2010 at 7:00 pm #

    It seems that now would be a good time to inject some perspective on ‘test’ for future discussions.
    First and foremost, ‘test’ is a nonlinear activity. As you test, you learn more about the system and also more about how to test it, so the shape and size of the remaining test activities will change over time as well: increasing the number of test objectives and test points in some areas and decreasing them in others.
    Second, keep in mind that sortie count is a proxy for tracking progress and not a measure of progress itself. An enterprising aerospace journalist could score a major coup if they could get the system developer to reveal the burn down rate of test points instead of sorties. Better yet, if the burn-down rate of test objectives could be divined, then the actual progress could be assessed directly, as even test points are increments by which test objectives are met. I suspect that the JSF program is currently cramming as many test points as possible into each sortie for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is cost control. Why do I suspect this? Because on my way home from work traveling west of Ft Worth at about 5:30 pm early last week I saw an F-35 and F-16 chase at low altitude and low speed while the F-35 was obviously performing some system or P&FQ tests at the I-20/I-30 split while RTB’ing.
    Finally, ALL “test” is risk reduction NOT risk elimination. It is impossible to test 100% of any system that can be described as ‘complex’. e can therefore expect the shape and number of test objectives in the out-years to be reduced overall s the Customers and Program Office become more comfortable with the system performance and progress.

  4. Jetcal1 3 May, 2010 at 10:10 pm #

    F-35: Change at The Top
    By Graham Warwick
    Some of you have been expecting it – calling for it, even – and now Lockheed Martin has made a change to its F-35 leadership, but not because of the program’s well-publicized problems, it says. Dan Crowley, one of the program’s two executive vice president/general managers, has been been promoted to the newly created position of chief operating officer of the Aeronautics sector.

    Crowley, who has been the evp/gm responsible for day-to-day operations of the F-35 program since May 2005, will be replaced by Larry Lawson, evp/gm of the F-22 program. Tom Burbage, the F-35 evp/gm charged with holding together all the international and industry partnerships on which the program is built, is staying in place and will be “responsible for coordinating all Lockheed Martin corporate resources to ensure F-35 program success”.

    Lockheed says the leadership change has “absolutely nothing” to do with the F-35′s cost and schedule issues and was planned “months ago”. That doesn’t quite gel with CEO Bob Stevens’ assurance in March that he had no plans to remove Crowley from the program. But Lockheed argues this is the “ideal time” to make the transition as F-35 ground and flight test is finally picking up pace.

    As evidence of progress, the company says the program logged 27 flights in April, making it the busiest month so far. That took it to 60 flights so far this year and 197 in total – still not a lot to show for a program that has been in flight test for more than three years. Amy Butler reports Lockheed’s target is 395 test sorties this year, which seems doable but still leaves almost 4,500 to go.

    As LM Aero’s COO, Crowley will have responsibility for operations across all of the sector’s programs, including the winding-down F-22 and ramping-up C-130J, but he will also stay involved with the F-35. Lawson. meanwhile, comes to the program with a track record of having pushed down costs over the F-22′s final batches.

  5. Amicus Curiae 5 May, 2010 at 7:27 pm #

    The Larry Lawson appointment as F-35 General Manager is a case of Life imitating art. Now the journey to the Dark Side is complete for Anakin Skywalker. He has become Darth Vader.

    Ralph Heath: What of the Rebellion? If the F-22 Rebels have obtained a complete technical reading of the F-35, it is possible, however unlikely, they might find a weakness and exploit it.

    Larry Lawson: The plans you refer to will soon be back in our hands.

    Dan Crowley: Any attack made by the F-22 Rebels against the F-35 project would be a useless gesture, no matter what technical data they have obtained. The F-35 organization is now the ultimate power in the universe. I suggest we use it.

    Larry Lawson: Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a fighter jet project is insignificant next to the power of the Force.

    Dan Crowley: Don’t try to frighten us with your sorcerers ways, Lord Lawson. Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes, or given you clairvoyance enough to find the rebels’ hidden fortress…

    [Lawson makes a pinching motion and Crowley starts choking]
    Larry Lawson: I find your lack of faith disturbing.

    Gordon England: Rise my friend.

    Larry Lawson: The F-35 will be completed on schedule.

    Gordon England: You’ve done well, Lord Lawson. And now I sense you wish to continue your search for young Amicus Curiae.

    Larry Lawson: Yes, my Master.

    Gordon England: Patience, my friend. In time, he will seek *you* out, and when he does, you must bring him before me. He has grown strong. Only together can we turn him to the Dark Side of the Force.

    Larry Lawson: As you wish.

    Gordon England: Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen.

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