Lockheed Martin to start F-35 JSF engine runs this week to meet October first flight

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Lockheed Martin will begin engine runs on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter this week as it strives to meet its 31 October target for first flight, while also fighting budget cuts that would delay production and drive up costs, writes Graham Warwick.

Aircraft AA-1 is planned to begin taxi tests in September. "We are still pushing for October 31, but there is some pressure against that date, and it could slip into early November," says Tom Burbage, manager F-35 programme integration.

Lockheed is also working to recover a three-month delay caused by design changes in subsequent aircraft to reduce weight. The delay affects manufacture of a new through-deck bulkhead introduced when the method of mating airframe sections was changed.

Burbage says Lockheed and its supplier have invested in additional bulkhead machining and wing assembly tools to recover the delay. "We plan to be back on track about half way through SDD [system development and demonstration], and well before LRIP [low-rate initial production]," he says.

Lockheed is concerned that moves by Congress to delay or slow production ramp-up will drive up costs by disrupting an industrial infrastructure that will be building one aircraft a month by the end of SDD. Plans call for five F-35s in LRIP Lot 1 and 16 in Lot 2, but this could be reduced to four and eight if Congress enacts proposed cuts.

Congress is concerned about concurrency between development and production, but Burbage says the proposed cuts would result in "aircraft starts" dropping from 13 in 2007 to as few as five in 2008, instead of increasing to 17, disrupting the supply chain. Burbage says a less costly option would be to hold production at one a month for the first two years.