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Air Force F-35 makes first night flight

Mar. 26, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
A Navy F-35C takes off in June 2012.
A Navy F-35C takes off in June 2012. (Andy Wolfe/Lockheed Martin)
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Pilots in the Air Force’s newest and most expensive fighter can now fly at night.

An F-35A training pilot took off Monday at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., for the Joint Strike Fighter’s first night training sortie. Previously, the service’s training syllabus explicitly prohibited the advanced stealthy fighter from flying at night or during adverse weather.

But this delay wasn’t due to a technical problem, it was due to different air worthiness standards in the various services flying the plane.

The Joint Strike Fighter is designed as a common fighter for all services. However, an issue arose with the symbols that the system’s pilot interface uses.

The Air Force believed it “didn’t have enough data to ensure the pilot-vehicle interface for night flying was good enough,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the joint F-35 program office executive officer, said Wednesday in response to questions from Air Force Times. “What I mean by that, is back in (training) the displays the pilots were looking at were confusing to Air Force pilots but not confusing to Navy and Marine Corps pilots because a lot of the symbology was of Navy origin.”

The confusion arose because the Air Force has a different air worthiness authority than the other services. The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, handles the air worthiness standards for the service, while the Navy and Marine Corps use standards from Naval Air Systems Command.

Because the NAVAIR standards are used on the F-35’s night systems, the Air Force trained 15 pilots through simulators at Eglin and the F-35 plant in Fort Worth, Texas, until it was confident its pilots were ready to begin night flying at Eglin, Bogdan said.

The F-35 program as a whole was cleared for night flying in December, with Navy and Marine Corps pilots beginning sorties in January. It took until Monday for the Air Force to be ready to fly at night.

Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh, on Wednesday, told the House Appropriations Committee that, despite continuing software issues with the jet, he is “more confident than I’ve ever been” the F-35A will reach its initial operating capability by the end of 2016. However, he expects that some issues remain and will need to be addressed while the jet is flying operationally.

His comments came the day after the Government Accountability Office released a report on the technological issues plaguing the jet, including continuing issues with the complex software in the jet.

“Delays in developmental flight testing of the F-35’s critical software may hinder delivery of expected warfighting capabilities to the military services,” the GAO wrote.

The Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation has said that delivery of operational capabilities could ultimately be delayed by as long as 13 months due to delays in software delivery, limited capability in delivered software, and the need to address problems and retest additional software versions.

“[I]f software testing continues to be delayed, if funding falls short of expectations or if unit cost targets cannot be met, DoD may have to make decisions about whether to proceed with production as planned with less capable aircraft or to alter the production rate,” the GAO wrote.

The Defense Department agrees that software problems are the largest problem facing the F-35 program as a whole but is more confident in the jet’s future.

“My biggest technical concern in development is still software,” Bogdan said in Wednesday testimony to the House Armed Services tactical air forces subcommittee. “Over the past two years, the program has implemented significant changes in how system software is developed, lab tested, flight tested, measured and controlled. These changes are showing positive effects, and I am moderately confident that the program will successfully release the (software upgrades) Block 2B and 3I capability as planned in 2015 and 2016, respectively.”

Earlier this month, the first F-35A arrived for pilot training at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. The base will accept 16 jets this year and eventually house 144 jets for training. Instructor pilots are still in training at Eglin, which is expected to graduate its 100th pilot and 1,000th maintainer this week.

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