Aviation journalist Stephen Trimble found a fascinating video from Flight Test Safety Committee’s conference early last May detailing several dramatic incidents in the F-35’s testing. We spoke to Stephen to find out more.
What were the films and what do they reveal?
“The videos in question are embedded in a presentation by an officer in VX-23 — the US Navy’s test and evaluation squadron — at the Flight Test Safety Workshop in May. The workshop is an annual event hosted jointly by the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, Society of Flight Test Engineers and the AIAA. Two videos within the presentation seem to have attracted the most attention. The first video shows an air to air refuelling flight test on 3 August with an F-35C hooked to a refuelling drogue attached to the centreline boom on a US Air Force KC-135R. The video captures the dramatic moment when the boom operator jettisons the drogue after the risk of the boom knuckle colliding with the F-35C canopy becomes too great. The second video of interest reveals a night landing test in mid-November with an F-35B on an amphibious carrier. The pilot was having some extreme trouble with the night vision system embedded in his helmet mounted display. Rather than aborting the test on safety grounds, the pilot and the control room decide tacitly proceed. As the pilot approaches the carrier, the video reveals that decision to be a mistake. The helmet’s night vision system in low light mode is barely able to make out the island superstructure and provides no meaningful visual cue of the area of the deck where the F-35B is supposed to land. In a clever but desperate move, the test pilot uses the heat signature of two power generators on the deck as a guide, along with the landing signal officer’s station on the island superstructure. He manages to land the aircraft without damaging himself, the aircraft or the carrier, but the VX officer acknowledges they were ‘very lucky’.”
Which F-35 problems are not well publicised?
“As the most expensive and scrutinised weapons program in world history, very few, if any, of the F-35’s problems qualify as not well publicised. As those problems relate to the VX officer’s presentation, I don’t think a lack of exposure is an issue. The HMD’s problems have been well-known for probably a decade, although the extent of the issues took several years to fully emerge. It does not appear to me that the refuelling test revealed a new “problem”. It seemed to merely reveal one limit in the flight envelope of the F-35C refuelling system, which is the point of flight testing. Whenever the initial operational test and evaluation period for the F-35A begins, we’ll find out how many deficiencies in Block 3F software were resolved. We’ll also learn how far ALIS has come to being able maintain and sustain the US F-35 fleet in an operational context.”
Is it dangerous to be helmet-dependent?
“Dangerous might not be the right word, but it adds quite a bit of complexity, cost and risk to the F-35 cockpit. As we’ve seen, the original design of the F-35 helmet was inadequate, requiring three generations of improvements to raise the technology to a level that could be used in operations. If it works, the helmet mounted display must surely enhance performance, but getting there has been more difficult than anyone imagined when Lockheed Martin won the overall F-35 development contract in October 2001.”
Should we believe reports of how well the F-35 is doing in exercises?
“You’re asking a journalist, so my answer to that question is no. They don’t pay me to believe everything that contractors and government programme managers tell me. If the F-35 achieved a 20:1 kill ratio at Red Flag, the pilots dramatically exceeded the design intent for an aircraft capable of a 6:1 kill ratio. I’d like to see exactly how each kill was achieved, but, of course, that’s a level of disclosure that would be rare for even the F-35.”
How did you find these new f-35 stories/films?
“On Sunday afternoon, a friend sent me the link with the date and location for the 2018 Flight Test Safety Workshop. So I simply clicked on the link for the proceedings of the 2017 event. I must admit I was surprised to find a presentation about the F-35 flight test programme, as the workshop tends to be about a bit drier — but no less fascinating to me — stuff. At the same time, I took the F-35 flight test videos with a grain of salt, as I happen to be reading the autobiography of the great Eric “Winkle” Brown. When you compare his flight test exploits to the level of risk you see exposed in the F-35 videos, it certainly provides some perspective at how far flight test safety has come since the 1940s and ’50s.”
Gifs and reference material from this fascinating article on The Drive.
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