F-35C Lightning II, the Navy’s next-generation fighter plane

By Bill Bartel
The Virginian-Pilot


By midafternoon Friday, the teeth-rattling thunder from repeated catapult launches of the Navy’s next-generation fighter plane had stopped.

The test pilots and crews for the F-35C Lightning II, the Navy’s version of the new Joint Striker Fighter, were wrapping up a short stint on the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower that began last week under “suboptimal conditions” as Hurricane Joaquin threatened and ended Friday under sunny skies.

In between, the single-engine stealth fighter, which is to join the Navy’s fleet in 2018, underwent its second round of carrier takeoffs and landings about 100 miles off Virginia’s coast. Its first carrier tests were a year ago on the Nimitz in the Pacific.

The Navy’s jet is one of three versions of the same plane, with variations also built for the Air Force and the Marine Corps. The Navy’s F-35 has a larger wingspan and reinforced equipment to allow for carrier landings, while the Marines’ version can make vertical landings and operate with shorter takeoffs from the deck of an amphibious ship. The Marines declared their plane operational in July, and the Air Force expects to do the same in August.

With Lockheed Martin’s price tag for 2,443 planes at about $400 billion – about 70 percent higher than first estimated – the plane has sparked considerable controversy.

But there was no money talk out at sea Friday.

“We’re not really thinking about that,” said Capt. Stephen Koehler, the carrier’s commanding officer. “When it comes out here, it’s about safely operating the airplane.”

The budget decisions are already being made by others, Koehler said.

“For us, it’s about seeing what the airplane can do,” he said. “And how it’s going to live up to the expectations…. It’s about my guys seeing if they can integrate it.”

The most high-risk exercises on the Eisenhower came Thursday and Friday as the pilots tested the aircraft’s limits for a safe launch.

Although there were considerable advance calculations and research, they’re not the same as conducting the test on a carrier at sea, said Rear Adm. J.R. Haley, the commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic in Norfolk.

“This is a physics problem,” Haley said, noting that depending on the plane’s weight, it needs a certain level of air speed to lift off.

“We got all that stuff in theory,” he said. “And now the pilots are going to go out here and… see if their walk matches the talk.”

It meant testing the bottom air speed limit for a safe launch – and then going just a little bit slower.

“We were shooting the aircraft slower and slower off the front of the boat until we found that level that said ‘too much,’ ” said Tom Briggs, a civilian Navy engineer.

On the Eisenhower, the test crew figured out that low limit and added 15 knots to it, Briggs said, adding that it will become the standard for carrier launches in the future.

The Navy’s F-35 test pilots had nothing but praise for the plane. One acknowledged that while stoically testing the plane’s limits comes with the job, there can be moments when emotions step in.

Cmdr. Tony Wilson remembered a year ago on the Nimitz when he was the first pilot to ever land an F-35 on a carrier.

“When I was coming aboard the Nimitz, yeah there is the ‘Holy crap, I’m actually doing this,’ ” when flying toward the carrier, Wilson said. “But to be completely honest, as soon as I came in – hit the brake to enter the pattern – it was, ‘All right. Time to put on the test pilot hat.’ ”

This month’s trip aboard the Eisenhower didn’t have any drama.

“It was very comfortable,” Wilson said. “I didn’t have any moment of doubt.”

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