Lockheed Martin has begun aerial refueling flight tests with the first F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as it faces a crucial month for the programme.
First fuel was expected to be passed to aircraft AA-1 from the US Air Force Boeing KC-135 tanker on 14 March.
A critical several weeks for the F-35 opened on 12 March, when the US Government Accountability Office released its annual report on the JSF programme, sharply criticising the realism and credibility of cost and schedule estimates.
A Defence Acquisition Board meeting is scheduled for 26 March to approve low-rate initial production of six conventional take-off and landing F-35As.
The meeting will also decide whether to approve production of six short take-off and vertical landing F-35Bs, conditional on a successful first flight.
© Lockheed Martin
The Department of Defense’s latest selected acquisition report is due out in April and is expected to reveal an increase in the cost to complete the JSF programme.
Also in April, the first STOVL F-35B, aircraft BF-1, is expected to begin propulsion system ground testing, in preparation for a first flight by June.
In May, Lockheed and the joint programme office expect to complete an update to the manufacturing plan that will bring more conservatism to the schedule for rolling out the remaining 17 test aircraft, says Dan Crowley, F-35 programme general manager.
The new schedule will add time for wing build-up and mate based on experience to date and will delay the remaining development aircraft by one to five months, he says.
Despite these delays, the DoD still plans to hold to the scheduled dates for completion of system development and demonstration and initial operational capability of the three F-35 variants, Crowley says. He adds that the JPO is working on a new estimate of the cost to completion to be released later this year.
In other milestones, a Japanese team is scheduled to visit Lockheed’s Fort Worth, Texas plant at the end of March for the formal site survey as part of its planned F-X fighter competition. Crowley says Lockheed has also been asked to support a formal proposal to Israel, which plans to acquire up to 100 F-35s.
Meanwhile, after completing aerial refueling tests, aircraft AA-1 is scheduled to deploy to Edwards AFB in California in mid-May for airstart testing. The second STOVL aircraft, BF-2, is scheduled out of mate at the end of April, when the first production-representative F-35A, AF-1, is to enter mate.
Completing the near-term milestones, the first static-test aircraft, BG-1, is expected to enter testing in May. “All 19 test aircraft are in manufacturing flow, plus the first two production aircraft, which are on schedule for delivery in 2010” says Crowley.
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