Politics & Government

Despite budget questions, Lockheed Martin pushing F-35 fighter tests

FORT WORTH — Flight testing of the three variants of the F-35 joint strike fighter continues to go well even as the program's future pace is tangled in congressional budget and deficit reduction efforts.

October was the busiest month yet for flight tests, with 122 completed flights and significant progress on a number of fronts, Lockheed Martin reported Friday.

Overall, 837 test flights were completed this year through Thursday, and both the number of individual flights and total number of test points -- specific tests of specific capabilities -- are running about 9 percent ahead of a restructured plan set out in January by the Pentagon's F-35 Joint Program Office.

"Sometimes numbers tell the story best, and I think that's what's happening here," said Mike Rein, Lockheed's F-35 communications director.

One of the major highlights and testing accomplishments in October was the work accomplished using two F-35B short-takeoff vertical-landing models operating from the USS Wasp amphibious ship off the Virginia coast. Over a three-week period, the aircraft made 72 short takeoffs and a like number of vertical landings. "There's a lot of positive indicators we're seeing between the ship trials and the land-based tests," Rein said. "We're ahead of plan. We're seeing good indicators of things to come."

In another important indicator of progress in the long-delayed and over-budget program, two additional production F-35A models were delivered to the 33d Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., during the month. That makes six delivered in recent months to Eglin, where preparations are under way to begin pilot training for U.S. and foreign buyers.

A seventh aircraft, the first production F-35B model, flew for the third time in Fort Worth on Thursday. After a few more shakedown flights, Rein said, the aircraft will be ferried to Eglin, where it will be used in training Marine pilots for short-takeoff vertical-landing operations.

Rein said he was not aware of any serious mechanical or flight handling problems that have been discovered during testing. "We've killed some bad myth," Rein said, referring to speculation that the F-35 jet exhaust would damage the amphibious ship or that engine downwash on landing and takeoff would make it hazardous for personnel to work near the aircraft.

Ten years into the F-35 development effort and roughly five years behind the original schedule, the F-35 program needs to show continued progress as Congress and the Pentagon grapple with the prospect of ever-tighter defense budgets and perhaps outright cuts from current spending levels.

The Pentagon has repeatedly delayed planned aircraft purchases to pay for cost overruns, and plans to cut its next order by four jets, to 30, to offset the cost of fixing problems on planes already built or nearing completion.