Initial feedback from US Air Force pilots and maintainers operating the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at Eglin AFB, Florida, suggests the aircraft is performing better than its predecessors did at a similar stage of development.
The F-35 is in its infancy, but the stealthy type is already proving to be relatively stable from a maintenance standpoint, says Col Andrew Toth, commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing.
"The system right now is behaving as advertised, [although] occasionally, we will have some issues with it on the ground," he says. However, this is usually easily fixed by shutting the aircraft down and then restarting it,
Once the JSF is airborne there are "very limited" issues, with the aircraft's hardware, software and Pratt & Whitney F135 engine all performing well, he says.
"That's all good news," Toth says, but cautions: "We're a very young system and we still have very long way to go."
Sgt Skyler DeBoer, a senior maintainer with the 33rd Fighter Wing, who has previous experience on the Lockheed F-22 Raptor and F-117 Nighthawk programmes, says the F-35 has the edge on the Raptor. "Compared with the [F-22], this programme is way ahead of where the [F-22] was, software-wise, aircraft-wise," DeBoer says, "Lockheed has made great strides with this aircraft."
DeBoer attributes part of the improvement to better maintenance training. F-35 maintainers have received far more extensive instruction at this early stage of the JSF programme than on the F-22, he says.
Contractor support, too, is far better on the F-35 than was the case on the F-22, he insists. Requests to address specific problems are processed far more quickly through the F-35's autonomic logistics information system, with responses often received within hours, he says.
Additionally, the F-35's stealth coatings are much easier to work with than those used on the Raptor. Cure times for coating repairs are lower and many of the fasteners and access panels are not coated, further reducing the workload for maintenance crews.
According to Lockheed, some of the F-35's radar-absorbent materials are baked into the jet's composite skin, which means the JSF's stealthy signature is not easily degraded.