F-35C completes carrier tests aboard the Ike

By Lance M. Bacon, Staff writer

ABOARD CARRIER DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER IN THE ATLANTIC — Across the board success was how the test pilots scored the second carrier testing run for the Navy’s F-35C Joint Strike Fighter, which wrapped up Oct. 9 aboard the carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The multifaceted two-week flight test was used to develop launch and recovery bulletins. The former focused on 55,000 and 60,000-pound catapult shots at military, the catapult shot with standard jet thrust, and maximum power. The launches included internal stores such as simulated 2,000 pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions and AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles.

Test pilots found  the jet’s slowest airspeed cat shot. Officials were not ready to reveal that number, but there were launches in which the F-35C dipped well below the flight deck. The Navy typically sets the standard launch speed at 15 knots above the minimum.

Development of recovery bulletins saw multiple wind scenarios — some as high as 40 knots over deck. Cmdr. Christian “Wilson” Sewell, the flight test director, lauded “Delta flight path,” in which flight controls capture the glide slope once the pilot has a center ball on their flight deck approach. The pilot then adjusts with minor tweaks via the stick.

“Easy,” Sewell said. “We put it on the deck exactly where we want just about every time.”

Sewell, who started off in F/A-18 Hornets, has been flying 16 years. He has roughly 40 shots and traps in the JSF, and another 230 in the Hornet.

“It’s a dream to fly,” he said of the F-35C, built to fire off a flattop’s catapult and catch its tailhook on the arresting cable upon return. “The mission systems, the flight controls, everything has a little more capability and a little more precision to it.”

The flight deck was equally impressed. A number of specific parameters were necessary — for example, two jet blast deflectors were modified so that the salt water flows through at a higher rate, a necessity for the heat produced when JSF hits afterburners.

Capt. Steve Koehler, Ike’s commanding officer, said the event was a challenge to the air and navigation departments, as well as bridge watch standers, but nothing his team couldn’t handle. After 23 months in the yard, his crew was ready for any challenge — as long as it was at sea.

Yellow shirts said the JSF taxis and maneuvers well on the flight deck. Sailors found it to be similar to the F/A-18 Super Hornet — it uses the same repeatable release holdback bar, the Catapult Capacity Selector Valve is set the same, and suspend procedures are the same. The one difference is location of the intakes.

“Our hold back operators and topside safety petty officers have to approach the aircraft similar to the way they would approach a EA-6B Prowler or A-6 Intruder,” said Lt. Cmdr. Karl Murray, V-2 division officer and senior catapult and arresting gear officer, a.k.a. “Top Cat.” “The intakes are closer to the nose launch bar, and some of these sailors aren’t used to seeing that.”

The flight deck saw about 20 shots per day, with flight ops running about seven hours each day. The two test birds were then used for logistics testing in the hangar bay.

“We are a single engine, but we are a single huge engine,” Sewell said. “A 10,000-pound engine presents some unique logistical considerations: how to get it aboard the ship, how to unpack it and move it around, where can maintenance be done, etc.”

The team did not do an engine swap, but simulated a swap of the power module, which is the largest component. The team also tested the integrated power package that provides electrical power to start the engine. While such gear is nothing new, the exhaust in this IPP points upward. The team ran the IPP for 20 minutes to ensure the hangar bay ceiling didn’t get too hot.

This also marked the first carrier operations for the $600,000 Generation 3 helmet, and it was a huge hit. Its visor replaces the traditional Heads-up Display. Every detail the pilot needs, from flight data to targeting information, is displayed.

While the ship’s crew and JSF’s pilots put a future jet fighter to the test, one two-star pilot was engaged in a different kind of battle. Many media outlets reported earlier this year that the stealth fighter had lost in a dogfight with the Air Force’s F-16 Falcon earlier this summer. Is the JSF inferior? Is it a waste of money? Did the designers fail to build a better plane?

Such assertions “makes me cringe,” said Rear Adm. John Haley, the head of Naval Air Force Atlantic. “It makes me think the people that are looking at this don’t understand what the future holds for us.”

“If you wanted us to design an airplane that optimized going out and beating an F-16 or F-15, we could do that. It wouldn’t be this airplane. If you tell me to optimize an airplane that’s going to do the mission we need to do, which is power projection and force protection, in a modern cyber and threat environment, this airplane does that without sacrificing your capabilities to do a close-in fight.”

Haley reiterated the JSF’s stand-off capabilities, unmatched situational awareness, and the fact that it won’t travel into the battlespace alone.

“With this airplane and how were going to fight with it, [a close-in dogfight] will not be typical,” he said. “I’m pretty confident I’m not going to have that happen. However, if it happens, we’re not just going to stop training guys on [air combat maneuvering].

“I’m not saying that there aren’t airplanes out there that can beat this thing if you put it in a bad position. I’m saying that the airplane had such great situational awareness, the chances of getting in that position are slim. An adversary coming off aspect would be identified long before he could recognize you.”

Final carrier tests are scheduled for late summer of 2016. This will include external weapons and the full joint precision aircraft landing system.

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