F-35 Lightning II Flight Test Update 1

By Eric Hehs Posted 18 March 2010

Nine pilots have flown more than 200 hours and 160 flights as of 23 March in the current System Development and Demonstration phase of the F-35 program.

The test pilots have expanded the flight envelope to 38,000 feet and Mach 1.1. Three F-35Bs have made cross-country flights to their new home at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland. The flight test team has completed thirteen flights that involved engaging the short takeoff/vertical landing, or STOVL, system. This total includes the first vertical landing—the latest major milestone reached.

The first short takeoff/vertical landing F-35B, called BF-1, has completed forty-two flights; BF-2 has twenty; and BF-3 has sixteen. BF-4, planned for an early-spring arrival at Patuxent River, will be the first avionics-equipped F-35 and will perform the initial onboard f light testing of the F-35’s mission systems, which are essentially 100 percent common across the three variants.

Extensive mission systems testing, including sensor fusion and SAR mapping, has occurred already on the Cooperative Avionics Test Bed, a converted 737, and on surrogate airborne laboratories and in ground-based labs. The final F-35B test aircraft, BF-5, will ferry to Patuxent River in 2011, to be joined with the F-35C carrier variants, CF-1, CF-2, and CF-3.

The first F-35 optimized for conventional takeoff and landing, called AF-1, completed three flights before entering a series of ground tests in November. The aircraft is expected to be f lying again this spring and will ferry to Edwards AFB, California, soon after. AF-1 will be joined there by AF-2 through AF-4 this year as well.

14 November 2009: AF-1 First Flight

First optimized conventional takeoff and landing variant, AF-1, completes its first flight. Piloted by Lockheed Martin test pilot David Nelson, AF-1 takes off from NAS Fort Worth JRB, Texas, and flies to an altitude of 20,000 feet and a speed of Mach 0.6. Nelson raises and lowers the landing gear, performs 360-degree rolls, and lifts the nose to twenty degrees angle of attack during the 1.6-hour mission.

15 November 2009: First F-35 Arrives At Pax River

The first F-35 arrives at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland. The F-35B, called BF-1, is ferried from the Lockheed Martin facility in Fort Worth, Texas, via Dobbins ARB, Georgia, by F-35 chief test pilot Jon Beesley. The aircraft lands on the Patuxent River runway at 12:46 pm EST. (The aircraft lands at Dobbins on 13 November and is weather delayed before departing on the 15th.)

19 November 2009: AF-1 Hot Pit Refuels

AF-1 hot pit refuels during its second flight. In hot pit refueling, the pilot stays in the cockpit and the aircraft remains on the ground and running as it is refueled. Lockheed Martin test pilot Jeff Knowles is the pilot for the mission (which counts as one flight). The overall flight lasts 2.3 hours. This is the first time hot pit refueling is used to fly back-to-back missions with the F-35. 

17 December 2009: AA-1 Last Flight Lands At China Lake

Knowles flies AA-1 on its ninety-first and final flight. The mission takes AA-1 from Edwards AFB to NAS China Lake, California, where it will undergo live-fire testing later in 2010.

18 December 2009: USMC Pilot Completes Longest Duration Flight

US Marine Corps pilot Maj. Joseph Bachmann completes the longest flight on an F-35 to date during the fifteenth flight of BF-2. The 3.7-hour mission, which includes aerial refueling, is in preparation for the ferry flight that will take the aircraft directly from Fort Worth, Texas, to Patuxent River, Maryland. 

29 December 2009: BF-2 Arrives At Pax River

Bachmann delivers the second F-35B, called BF-2, to NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, in a nonstop flight from Fort Worth, Texas. The aircraft is refueled en route by a KC-130.

7 January 2010: Inflight STOVL Operations Begin

BAE test pilot Graham Tomlinson, the lead STOVL pilot, engages the F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing, or STOVL, propulsion system in flight for the first time. Tomlinson climbs to 5,000 feet and engages the aircraft’s shaft-driven lift fan propulsion system at 210 knots, then slows to 180 knots with the system engaged before accelerating and converting back to conventional flight mode. The STOVL propulsion system is engaged for a total of fourteen minutes during the flight. Photo By Andy Wolfe

23 January 2010: Two F-35Bs Fly On Same Day At Pax River

Both F-35B variants in flight test at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, fly on the same day for the first time. Tomlinson flies BF-1 on its third STOVL-mode flight. He engages the lift system for eleven minutes during the flight. The flight profile includes airborne conversions at 200 knots and 5,000 feet and handling tests at 150 knots. The team at Patuxent River use hot pit refueling to fly a second sortie for BF-1 on the same day.

The second F-35B, BF-2, conducts additional air-refueling testing during its seventeenth flight. Bachmann takes the aircraft to 10,000 feet where he makes two refueling contacts with a KC-130 from VX-20 during the 1.4-hour flight.

26 January 2010: First RAF Pilot Flies F-35

Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Steve Long becomes the first active duty service pilot from the United Kingdom to fly the F-35 Lightning II. He flies BF-2 from NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, logging the aircraft’s eighteenth mission. Long flies the aircraft to 20,000 feet before landing 1.3 hours later. The RAF pilot has more than 2,200 hours of flight time including more than 100 sorties over Kosovo and Bosnia, Sierra Leone, and Iraq. Long currently flies the F/A-18 as an exchange pilot with the US Marine Corps.

2 February 2010: BF-3 First Flight

BF-3 takes off for the first time. During the flight, from NAS Fort Worth JRB, Texas, Beesley tests the aircraft’s handling qualities, engine functionality, landing gear operation, and basic subsystem performance. BF-3 is instrumented for flight sciences test work and will be used primarily to evaluate vehicle systems and expand the aircraft’s aerodynamic and structural loads envelope. It will carry and release most of the weapons the F-35B is designed to employ. 

4 February 2010: BF-2 Completes Twenty Flights

Knowles flies BF-2 on its twentieth sortie. The 2.5-hour mission includes aerial refueling.

17 February 2010: First Slow Landing At Pax River

Tomlinson guides the F-35B to its first slow landing at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland. The landing at 130 knots, with the lift fan operating and the three-bearing swivel nozzle deflected, is the first in a series of progressively slower landings leading up to the first hover and vertical landing.

17 February 2010: Third F-35 Arrives At Pax River

Knowles flies BF-3 to NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, from Fort Worth, Texas, and is refueled in flight by a KC-130 tanker. 

20 February 2010: Second USMC Pilot Flies F-35

Lt. Col. Fred Schenk becomes the second Marine Corps pilot to fly the F-35. Schenk, who flies the sixth flight of BF-3 for his first mission, is the eighth pilot to fly the Lightning II.

17 March 2010: First Hover And Short Takeoff

BF-1 demonstrates the capability to hover during a test flight at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland. The flight begins with a conventional takeoff before Tomlinson initiates conversion to STOVL mode at 200 knots. He then slows the aircraft to sixty knots and flies a decelerating approach to a zero airspeed hover at 150 feet above the runway. This marks the first free air hover in the F-35B. Upon reaching zero airspeed, Tomlinson executes test points to confirm the controllability of the aircraft in hover. After completing all hover test points, he executes a slow landing at seventy knots. Later in the day, BF-1 performs the first F-35 short takeoff, lifting off at 100 knots using less than 1,000 feet of runway. 

18 March 2010: BF-1 Completes First Vertical Landing

Tomlinson successfully completes the first vertical landing in an F-35B during Flight 42 of BF-1. The flight begins with an eighty-knot short takeoff followed by low-speed jet-borne flight to confirm performance. Tomlinson accelerates to about 150 knots before reducing speed to the point of hovering about 150 feet over the airfield at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland. After a minute of hovering, he commands the F-35 to descend vertically to a 96- by 96-foot square pad.

Eric Hehs is the editor of Code One.