Despite problems, F-35’s first test pilot still believes in the stealth fighter

Jon Beesley, the first F-35's first test pilot, stands in front of stealth fighter at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth.
Jon Beesley, the first F-35's first test pilot, stands in front of stealth fighter at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth.

Jon Beesley remembers being in the cockpit as if it were yesterday.

The 66-year-old retired Lockheed Martin test pilot can still see the thousands of people watching as he taxied the F-35 down a runway in Fort Worth for its first test flight a decade ago.

Beesley had “flown” the jet in simulators — with elaborate computer models monitoring the plane’s complex electronic systems — and the engines had been revved up on the ground. But this time was for real.

The F-35 didn’t disappoint, and while that historic moment was delayed by dense fog and then cut short by “small glitches,” Beesley describes his first real ride in the jet as an “extremely successful flight.”

“I remember being excited for myself and for the team,” Beesley recalled. “We all knew it was going to work, but the proof is when it can get off the ground and not do the funky chicken.”

Beesley returned to Lockheed Martin this week to celebrate the Dec. 15, 2006, test flight with some of his former colleagues and others. His visit comes at a time when the F-35, at $379 billion the country’s most costly weaponized aircraft, is still experiencing some turbulence.

Last month, the Defense Department’s chief weapons tester questioned the validity of a Pentagon memo to the U.S. Senate describing the F-35’s performance in key tests. His critiques were at odds with the Pentagon’s narrative that the program is on course after earlier problems.

President-elect Donald Trump also has voiced strong misgivings about the F-35’s cost and capabilities. His administration will eventually decide how many of the jets will be built. Company officials already are meeting with the Trump transition team about the stealth fighter and other programs.

Lockheed Martin officials admit the F-35 has had its up and downs. But since 2012, after a two-year probation was lifted and $4.5 billion was added for development, performance has improved and the F-35 program has hit every milestone. The cost of the jet fighter also has fallen to $108 million a copy, and Lockheed hopes to get it down to $80 million to $85 million.

“The F-35A is proving itself every day in the hands of pilots and maintainers throughout the Air Force. We have amassed over 70,000 flight hours and this jet just keeps improving the more we gain experience employing its fifth-generation capabilities,” said Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus, director of the Air Force F-35 Integration Office.

Expect the unexpected

Beesley is still as big a believer in the F-35 today as he was 10 years ago when the program took flight.

Walking toward a hangar at the Lockheed Martin plant, the white-haired, soft-spoken chief F-35 test pilot admitted to a “sweep of nostalgia and a lot of memories.” Beesley, who worked at General Dynamics and Lockheed for 25 years, retired in 2011. He now lives in his southeast Idaho hometown.

Beesley remembers arriving at the plant a decade ago early in the morning for the test flight. The day was gray and gloomy, and takeoff was delayed for hours because of a dense fog.

“I was frustrated because it was six hours before I could fly,” he said.

When he was finally able to take off at about 1 p.m., Beesley said at the time that the thrust of the Pratt & Whitney jet engines gave him “a little more performance” than anticipated, calling it “a pleasant surprise.”

Chased by two F-16 fighters, Beesley quickly took the F-35 up to about 15,000 feet, where he performed most of the planned tests. But instead of flying the jet for an hour, the flight was cut to about 35 minutes because two airspeed indicators were giving him differing data, something he called a small glitch.

Still, protocol established before the test flight dictated that if there were any problems, the landing gear would not be raised. During the flight, Beesley said he remained focused, always looking for the unexpected so he would be ready in case anything else went wrong.

But the jet’s other subsystems, such as the flight-control computers and the electrical systems that, for example, power the F-35’s stealthy surface area, performed without a hitch. The complex weapons, radar and targeting systems all work off millions of lines of computer code. The F-35 has been called a “flying computer.”

At a press conference after the first test flight, Beesley was described as “beaming from ear to ear.” He said this week that the F-35 was an “easy plane to fly” and that while he expected a lot out of the aircraft that day, he “got even more.”

It does the job

Eventually, Beesley spent about 350 hours flying the F-35, taking it up on numerous test flights during which he checked the landing gear, low-altitude maneuvering and speed brake operations, among other things.

As a result, Beesley disregards comments made by a test pilot on a military blog “War is Boring” last year that said the F-35’s performance was less than what he expected during a mock dogfight with an F-16. Trump has based his criticism of the F-35 on the comments made on that blog.

“When they say that [the F-35] cannot perform as well as the planes we already have, what are [we] doing, and spending so much more money?” Trump asked on the Hugh Hewitt radio show.

But Beesley, who has experience behind the stick of every other stealth aircraft, said the F-35 is a different kind of plane. With its technology, the F-35 is designed to engage, shoot and kill enemies from long distances, not necessarily in visual dogfighting situations.

Beesley also does not find it “terribly surprising” that the F-35 has taken longer to develop because it’s being built for three branches of the armed services, and he wonders how much the government would have spent on all the aircraft the F-35 eventually will replace.

Other countries are clearly convinced that the F-35 is the future — for them “it is everything,” Beesley said. Just last month, Israel said it plans to expand its fleet of F-35 fighter jets because it will give it an edge over Middle East neighbors.

“It does the job you want it to do,” Beesley said.

Max B. Baker: 817-390-7714, @MaxbakerBB