Latest F-35 flight tests finish – and US stops accepting new jets

Contract wrangle overshadows milestone

The UK's sole F-35B in flight. Crown copyright
The UK's first F-35B, pictured in America in late 2016. Crown copyright

The F-35 fighter jet has completed one of its years-long flight testing programmes – just in time for the United States to suspend all deliveries of the new supersonic aircraft.

The final flight of the F-35's System Development and Demonstration (SDD) phase took place earlier this week, flown by British BAE Systems test pilot Pete “Wizzer” Wilson. He flew an F-35C (the version designed for conventional aircraft carriers) on a flight intended to check that the aircraft can safely carry 2,000lb bombs and Sidewinder anti-aircraft missiles together.

In all, the SDD flight tests clocked up 17,000 flying hours over 9,200 sorties across all three variants of the supersonic stealth fighter. British military pilots flying British-owned F-35Bs also carried out air-to-air refuelling trials this week with a British-owned Airbus tanker, achieving a milestone of their own.

Finishing SDD means that Block 3F of the aircraft’s operating system can now be frozen and rolled out to all worldwide users. That block is not without its own rather fundamental problems, as the US Department of Operational Test and Evaluation has found. Flight tests will continue to validate later versions of the software, such as the still-in-beta Block 4, as well as ironing out bugs discovered during Block 3F testing and deferred to later releases.

However, even as the flight test programme came to a close, the US Department of Defence stopped accepting new jets from manufacturer Lockheed Martin over a contract wrangle. Reuters summarised it in the following terms: “Neither party discovered the issue at the time of production, so each has pointed to the other to fix it.”

An American government spokesman said: “This is not a safety of flight issue but rather a contractual resourcing issue that needs to be resolved. The [US] government has implemented this pause to ensure the warfighter receives a quality product from industry.”

It is not believed the pause in deliveries will affect the UK’s purchase of F-35Bs, mainly because we asked for our first batch to be delivered at such a slow rate that a delay of a month or two won’t have a measurable impact.

Britain’s contract for F-35 deliveries was signed with an American government agency, the F-35 Joint Project Office, rather than with Lockheed Martin direct, ostensibly to let the Americans negotiate economies of scale with the manufacturer. This, however, has led to the situation where the US government dictates to the UK where supposedly British-owned aircraft will have their engines overhauled: Turkey, that well-known bastion of democratic stability.

Currently the UK owns about 15 F-35Bs and the target is to have about 45 on strength by the middle of the next decade. UK flight trials with the F-35B aboard new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will take place off America later this year, marking yet another milestone for the UK. ®




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