‘Flawless’ vertical landing by F-35 signals possible tipping point

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Lockheed Martin still has much to prove, but two days of flight tests on 17-18 March did more than offer a short burst of relief for the F-35 programme's supporters.

Both the timing and visual effect of the hover and vertical landing tests offer the opportunity for Lockheed to achieve a critical tipping point in the programme.

In a single 13min sortie, BAE Systems test pilot Graham Tomlinson provided a vivid glimpse of the F-35's most impressive features, which Lockheed rushed to post on YouTube within an hour of the event.

Moreover, achieving both hover and vertical landing milestone events within a two-day window - with only the availability of a redundant search and rescue helicopter delaying the vertical landing event by 2h - lends hope that Lockheed can begin closing a gaping lag in the flight-test schedule.

Only about 3% of more than 1,200 flight tests planned in fiscal year 2010 had been completed through February, while the vertical landing itself had been delayed from mid-2009.

As always, programme officials spoke confidently of making real progress. Speaking after the historic flight, Tomlinson said the same flight recorded a total of 40 test points. Lockheed plans call for averaging 10 test points per each sortie over the nine-year span of the flight-test phase on all three aircraft variants.

"It's certainly not a smooth sequence yet, but we're making some giant steps with some of the sorties we're experiencing at the moment," Tomlinson says.

 
© Lockheed Martin

Perhaps humbled by a series of recent setbacks, Tom Burbage, Lockheed F-35 vice-president, struck a cautious tone. F-35 programme officials predicted at last year's Paris air show that the programme would achieve 1,600 sorties in 2011, meaning each of the 12 flight test aircraft would fly 12 times a month. But Burbage stopped short of predicting such success after the vertical landing event.

Instead, he cited the programme's arguably next biggest milestone event. Lockheed is scheduled to fly two conventional take-off and landing F-35As to Eglin AFB, Florida, in mid-year to stand-up the first training unit.

By that time, Burbage says, "we'll be able to get a really good lock on whether we can achieve these kind of legacy-type [sortie] rates, and we think we will".

For the moment, however, the programme can celebrate a key breakthrough. Even some of the programme officials acknowledged the F-35B's flawless landing surprised them.

"I'm still rather speechless about it," says Tomlinson, lead test pilot for the short take-off and vertical landing variant. "We constantly expected we'd get issues and we saw nothing."