Operational testers at Edwards AFB, California, are expected to receive their first Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) on 21 February. A sister squadron at Nellis AFB, Nevada, is expected to receive their first F-35s about a week later.
"Edwards is getting four Block 1B jets tentatively on 21 February," says a senior US Air Force official. "About 7-10 days later, Nellis will get four Block 2A jets."
The operational test units were originally supposed to receive their first aircraft about eight months ago, the official notes. "We're just waiting for the final ACC [Air Combat Command] approval to take delivery," he says. The two USAF operational test squadrons, both of which fall under the auspices of the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group at Nellis AFB, currently have six qualified F-35 pilots between them.
Pilots from the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES) at Edwards AFB will be operating with the Block 1B software load to familiarize themselves with the aircraft, but that interim configuration has been modified with some added functionality. The "Block 1Bs have actually had a few more systems 'released' which means we can get a few more things turned on and working," the official says.
The aircraft which are going to be assigned to the 422nd TES at Nellis AFB will have the more advanced Block 2A training software installed. The Block 2A configuration adds greater sensor systems and data fusion functionality along with some simulated weapons capability.
Right now, the operational testers' immediate focus is aircraft familiarization. The "job is really familiarization training in preparation for our big test in 2015-2016," the official says. "Assuming that doesn't slip again." Operational testing for the initial war-fighting Block 2B software is scheduled for late 2015 and the early part of 2016.
Formal operational test and evaluation will afford the USAF and the other US services and partner nations a chance to evaluate the F-35 weapons system under realistic combat conditions. "Up until now, Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor, had a 51% vote on the developmental testing process," the official says. "This will be the first time the customer has a big say."