Navy F-35s begin final round of sea trials aboard USS George Washington

By Courtney Mabeus

The Virginian-Pilot


For Navy pilot Lt. Graham “Boss” Cleveland, landing the Navy’s new Joint Strike Fighter aboard a moving aircraft carrier was a relief.

That relief came not because landing the Navy’s new fighter is more difficult – it comes with a program called Delta Flight Path that functions as a sort of cruise control for the aircraft, which can help to make that crucial step easier – but because this day has been a long time coming.

Cleveland, a landing signal officer who transitioned from the F/A-18C, was aboard for the first two phases of developmental testing of the F-35C Lightning II as the Navy commenced trials in 2014 and 2015. This week, he was at the controls for what’s expected to be the third and final phase of sea-based developmental testing as the Navy puts the aircraft through some of its most rigorous tests yet.

“It’s kind of something I’ve been working toward for quite some time,” Cleveland said.

Cleveland was among 12 pilots from Strike Fighter Squadron 101 “Grim Reapers,” a fleet replacement squadron based at Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base, to complete carrier qualifications as part of this round of testing. The Navy’s Patuxent River-based Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 will spend the next two to three weeks working through other capabilities, including taking off and landing with external simulated weapons and asymmetrical loading.

The F-35 is the military’s next generation fighter. The Navy’s jet is one of three variations, and includes greater internal fuel capability, larger wings and more robust landing gear for carrier settings. The single-engine stealth fighter will replace the Air Force’s A-10 and F-16, the Navy’s F/A-18 and the Marines’ AV-8B Harrier jets.
The Air Force declared its version combat-ready earlier this month. The Marine Corps, which uses the short takeoff/vertical landing variation, said its was operational in July 2015. The Navy’s version is expected to join the fleet in 2018.

Tom Briggs, the Navy’s civilian acting chief test engineer aboard the Washington, said crews will work through about 500 test points to develop instructions for launching and recovering under different conditions.

“We’re going to take off, we’re going to land. We’re going to evaluate the handling qualities,” Briggs said. “We’re going to evaluate the compatibility with the ship with those weapons underneath.”

The Navy’s previous rounds of carrier testing, including a stint in October with the Norfolk-based USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, have looked at deck handling, hangar bay operations, internal weapons loading and other high-risk exercises designed to test the F-35’s limits for a safe launch.

Operating 100 miles off the Virginia coast, Monday’s blistering heat and humidity combined with the blast of the F-35’s jet engine proved no competition to pilots’ excitement about the aircraft, which has become one of the military’s most controversial and anticipated in recent years as the program became mired in cost overruns and delays.

“It’s just easy,” Cmdr. Ted “Dutch” Dyckman, a test pilot with the VX-23, said Monday. “It’s really easy to fly.”

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