As Tom Burbage closed the F-35C first flight media teleconference on Monday, the Lockheed Martin vice president and ex-US Navy fighter pilot sought to lend a perspective to the occasion.
The 55-minute flight on 6 June by CF-1 -- the first carrier variant -- may seem a minor event in the history of the F-35 program.. But, in the sweep of naval history, CF-1's airborne debut will be remembered as a "very historic day", Burbage says.
Designing and flying an aircraft that must takeoff and land from a postage-stamp, moving runway in open water and possibly under attack has never been easy. It was hard enough in the era of straight-wing aircraft powered by turboprop engines. Adding swept-wings and jet engines in the 1950s inserted a new level of complexity.
Last year's discovery that the F-35C requires a keel redesign to survive repeated carrier landings may indicate the scale of the learning curve, even though the company is no stranger to carrier-based aviation with the S-3 Viking.
I recommend a new article in the Naval War College Review to gain a better appreciation for the story of carrier-based aviation. The author, Robert C. Rubel, argues the Navy's carriers didn't fully recover from the transition to the jet age until the arrival of the F/A-18 Hornet. An excerpt:
Some histories of naval aviation regard the transition to jets to be substantially complete with the phasing out of the last propeller driven fighter, the F4U Corsair, while others maintain that the transition lasted until the introduction of the F-8 Crusader and F-4 Phantom II--the first Navy carrier-based fighters that were the equals of their land-based counterparts. Another way of looking at it is through the lens of safety: one might declare the transition to have been complete when the Navy aviation accident rate became comparable to that of the U.S. Air Force. The logic behind this reasoning is that whereas a multitude of factors--technical, organizational, and cultural--constitute the capability to operate swept-wing jets, the mishap rate offers an overall indicator of how successful an organization is in adopting a new technology.
Using this criterion, the Navy's transition process lasted until the late 1980s--which was, not coincidentally, the era in which the F/A-18 arrived in the fleet in numbers. This article argues that tactical jet aircraft design and technology presented Navy aircrews, maintenance personnel, and leaders with several major challenges that were in fact not substantially overcome until the introduction of the F/A-18 Hornet in 1983.