Navy F-35 starts first sea trials with new tailhook

By Meghann Myers
Staff writer

If all goes according to plan, the F-35C Lightning II jet will roar into its first flattop trap Nov. 3 as news cameras roll, an event 17 years in the making.

Two Joint Strike Fighters are set to head out that morning from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, bound for the carrier Nimitz for two weeks of testing off the coast of San Diego, Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the JSF program manager told reporters in the run-up to the carrier tests.

“And I will tell you, this summer, that was thought of as not even possible, because of the problems with the [tail]hook, the problems we were having with the nose gear, the problems we were having with a whole host of things to get there,” Bogdan said Thursday.

A series of setbacks pushed the carrier landing milestone back nearly a year, before more issues edged it further out in 2014. The tailhook redesign will allow the Navy to finally carrier test the F-35, an aircraft that would bring stealth fighters to carrier air wings, along with greater costs. The naval aviation brass are taking a wait-and-see approach to F-35C development, one influential aviation expert said.

The most recent problem to sideline the JSF was a June engine fire in the Air Force’s F-35A variant that unofficially grounded the airframe for weeks; the Navy jet has the same engine.

A fire investigation found that a fan blade rubbed the engine so hard that it heated to about 1,900 degrees, causing cracks that sent pieces of the engine flying through the fuel tank, where they caught on fire, Bogdan said.

There are two temporary fixes in progress now, he said, and a permanent solution is coming next year. All of the options involve creating trenches in the engine where the rotor blades dig in, reducing the friction, but not so deep that airflow backs up in the engine.

Engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney will pick up the tab to create trenches in already fielded aircraft, Bogdan said.

“I feel pretty good about this now,” he said. “Four months ago I would have told you … there was risk.”

The carrier test comes after the redesign of the F-35C’s tailhook, the bar that catches one of the three tensioned wires on the flight deck to stop the jet safely.

Lockheed Martin had some issues designing a working tailhook that blended into the aircraft’s stealthy body, in contrast to hooks on legacy airframes, which are mounted on the outside of the skin. The first iteration wasn’t catching in 2013 tests.

Pilots successfully tested the redesigned tailhook in testing earlier this year at Naval Air Engineering Station Lakehurst, New Jersey, setting up for the sea trials.

Now, Bogdan said, he’s confident the aircraft has been put through its paces. He recalled watching tests at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, in which pilots forced the jets to land on their nose gear or on either wheel, to simulate the uneven angles created by a pitching and rolling ship.

Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at the Teal Group, shared Bogdan’s optimism in an Oct. 28 phone interview with Navy Times.

“All of this has been modeled before,” he said. “It’s unlikely that there are going to be any showstoppers, technically.”

The outlook

The U.S. Navy is by far the F-35’s least enthusiastic customer in the world, Aboulafia said, with allies like the United Kingdom and Israel showing more interest.

The Navy ordered two F-35Cs for 2015, which would bring the grand total to 28 in the first seven years of production, according to inventories cited in the most recent Congressional Research Service Report on the JSF program.

By contrast, the Marine Corps requested six F-35Bs and the Air Force requested 26 F-35As, bringing their totals to 66 and 130, respectively.

The Navy’s low buy-in is a sign of indifference about a new, stealthier strike plane, Aboulafia said.

“There are some officers in the Navy who would like to see stealth brought to carriers, but quite a few who wouldn’t, who would rather stick with something they know, at a price they know, with two engines that they know and perhaps, shift all funding to the sixth generation [F/A-18],” he said.

However, he said, it’s not as simple as striking out on their own with more Super Hornets.

“On the other hand, of course, [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] has long tried to insist on them staying in just for the sake of program economics,” Aboulafia said. “In other words, there’s a certain damage to the program if they defect.”

However, there’s a chance that the Navy will downsize its order again, Aboulafia said. Budget constraints and congressional advocacy have led to constant negotiating of order numbers and pricing.

As recently as Oct. 27, the Pentagon finalized a deal for 43 more planes to go into production in 2016, with four slated for the Navy. That very slow procurement schedule is on purpose, Aboulafia said.

Coincidentally, the F-35C is landing on Nimitz 35 years and five days after the F/A-18A made its first carrier landing, aboard the carrier America in 1979, according to Naval Air Forces.

The Navy still has a soft spot for the F/A-18 Hornet, Aboulafia said, and he envisions a blended strike fighter fleet, with a sixth-generation F/A-18 and a few F-35s to round it out.

“There’s a couple of aspects of Navy aviation that are fairly unique,” he said. “One is that they would still like their own plane. The other is, if you don’t have enough aircraft, you run the risk of losing a carrier, which is unthinkable.”

It’s a mutually reinforcing situation, he said: You need enough aircraft to fill your flight decks, and you need enough flight decks to justify the number of planes you’re buying.

A theoretical F/A-18G wouldn’t be in the works until the 2030 time frame, he added, so logically, the Navy will have to fill in any F/A-18 E and F Super Hornet gaps with the JSF.

“All you can do is wait until the price comes down and the kinks are worked out with the F-35,” he said.

The F-35C carrier tests are scheduled to run through Nov. 17, according to Naval Air Forces.

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