The F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the Navy’s newest strike fighter, completed initial carrier developmental testing (DT-I) 14 November aboard USS Nimitz (CVN 68) in San Diego, Calif.
During DT-I, F-35C test pilots and engineers tested both the suitability and integration of the aircraft with carrier air and deck operations in an at-sea environment. A series of tests designed to gradually expand the aircraft’s operating environment enabled the F-35 Lightning II Integrated Test Force (ITF) from the VX-23 Salty Dogs — based at NAS Patuxent River, Md. — to conduct operations in preparation for the aircraft’s initial operational capability in 2018.
The F-35C demonstrated exceptional performance both in the air and on the flight deck, accelerating the team’s progress through the DT-I schedule and achieving 100 percent of the threshold test points three days ahead of schedule. Test pilots and engineers credited the F-35C’s Delta Flight Path technology with significantly reducing pilot workload during the approach to the carrier, increasing safety margins during carrier approaches, and reducing touchdown dispersion.
“The engineers responsible for the aircraft’s control laws did a phenomenal job designing this aircraft from the pilot’s perspective,” said Cmdr. Tony Wilson, the DT-I team lead at VX-23. “The control schemes of the F-35C provide a tool for the below-average ball flyer to compete for top hook.”
Other test pilots involved in the testing described the F-35C as easy to operate in the carrier environment. One former F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot described landing an F/A-18 as being “fun and challenging,” while landing an F-35C as “just plain fun.”
“My major take away was that the F-35C is very good at flying behind the ship,” said Lt. Cmdr. Ted Dyckman, a VX-23 test pilot. “Any deviation that someone gets themselves into, they can correct fairly quickly and accurately.”
“In fact, it’s a three-wire machine,” he added, referring to the optimal arresting wire aboard an aircraft carrier.
By alleviating the need for pilots to make power corrections, F-35C pilots are able to focus on the line-up to the carrier deck during traps. This capability allowed for 124 arrested landings with zero unintentional hook-down missed attempts to catch an arresting wire on the flight deck, otherwise known as “bolters.” (Two hook-down intentional bolters were conducted as part of the DT-I test plan.)
“The flight control system is precise, stable and responsive and provides carefree handling in all flight regimes,” said Cmdr. Christian Sewell, VX-23 F-35 operational test liaison officer/ITF operations officer. “We’ve tested right up to the edge of the envelope and the aircraft handles amazingly. In general, the pilot workload required to fly the F-35 is less when compared to legacy aircraft, which allows the pilot to focus their efforts on the operational mission.”
According to Capt. A.C. Lynch, deputy director of the NAVAIR Air Vehicle Engineering Department, the three-wire landings during DT-I demonstrated the successful re-design of the F-35C’s tailhook and supporting structural interfaces. The joint contractor and government team consisted of engineers with NAVAIR’s Systems Engineering; Air Vehicle Engineering; Support Equipment and Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment departments; the Atlantic Test Ranges and Patuxent River ITF; Lockheed Martin Aero; Northrop Grumman; and Fokker Landing Gear.
The tailhook re-design effort, like the flight control system, is an example of the power of collaboration between government and industry engineers. “In both cases, industry was able to leverage NAVAIR’s decades of experience in carrier-based aircraft design to build an outstanding product for the warfighter,” said Lynch.
“Since beginning shore-based carrier suitability testing in January 2014 with the redesigned hook system, test results have been positive with the ultimate proof coming in the success of DT-I,” said Bryan Racine, F-35 ship suitability team lead.
“This det. was very successful,” said Dyckman. “We flew it here and saw that it could trap with no bolters. The only true bolter was a power call on the landing signal officer and the aircraft touching down long.”
“We had stricter weather requirements when we were here. As we got into [testing], the weather started coming down,” he said. “We had such confidence in how the plane was flying that we lowered the weather minimums to what the fleet is actually using, knowing that when I lower my hook and come into the groove I’m going to trap.”
Dykman added that the test team’s confidence level in the aircraft was so high, they were ready to evaluate the aircraft for night operations during the first det.
“It flew very well behind the ship, even on the darkest night,” he said. “Two hook-down passes and two traps: that says it all right there. It’s unheard of to conduct night ops on the first det.”
During DT-I, F-35C maintenance and ground operations integrated well with standard Navy carrier procedures aboard Nimitz.
“All of the flight deck crew members involved in DT-I were assigned to Nimitz, some of whom went to NAS Patuxent River in mid-October for training,” said Wilson. “They returned to the ship and prepared the remainder of their crew for the arrival of the F-35C. The initial ship trials of the F-35C would not have been possible without the cooperation of Nimitz.”
After all test points are collected, analyzed and assessed, the DT-I data will be used to advise the Navy of any adjustments necessary to ensure the fifth-generation fighter is fully capable and ready to deploy to the fleet in 2018.
“Our main testing points were to verify that the approach handling qualities were satisfactory across a variety of wind conditions, to determine the launch characteristic and performance from the ship’s catapults across a variety of wind conditions, to look at the integration of the aircraft with the ship both on the flight deck and in the hangar bay, and to test the ability of the F-35C to use other ship’s flight systems to perform inertial alignments, instrument approaches and basic navigation to and from the ship,” said Cmdr. Shawn Kern, director of test and evaluation for F-35 naval variants. “We also performed some aircraft functions in and around the shipboard environment including use of various sensors.”
By 2020, the Navy will integrate initial F-35Cs into the carrier air wing where it will bring advanced stealth technology to the carrier environment, enhanced interoperability capabilities to other air wing platforms, and an upgraded network to ensure the precision of the commanders’ perception of the operating area. Future carrier air wings will consist of a mix of F-35C Lightning IIs; F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets; EA-18G Growlers; E-2D Hawkeyes; unmanned carrier launched airborne surveillance and strike air vehicles; MH-60R/S helicopters; and Carrier Onboard Delivery logistics aircraft.
Lt. j.g. Ramsden is an assistant public affairs officer with Commander, Naval Air Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet.