Leaving the Hive
A version of this article appears in the June 23 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.
While deployment of theJoint Strike Fighter to air shows in the U.K. may help to build momentum toward securing Britain’s order for the aircraft, it will also help build an understanding of the logistics requirements needed for the complex fifth-generation fighter.
Plans for the deployment now involve up to four F-35Bs arriving in the first week of July ready to make their international debut, first at the Royal International Air Tattoo atFairford on July 11 and then at the Farnborough International Airshow, which opens on July 14.
In addition to appearing at the two shows, a sortie to Scotland to conduct a flyby at the naming ceremony of the new HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier is on the agenda.
The aircraft will be escorted across the Atlantic by a pair of U.S. Air Force KC-10 tankers. They will be joined by a and at least one KC-130J in support. The F-35s are expected to refuel around 10-12 times each during their crossing, flying direct from NAS Patuxent River, Maryland to Fairford, which will act as their home base during July.
Planning for the visit began in late February and the deployment is expected to involve approximately 80 personnel, including pilots, maintainers and security staff.
“This is a test in the respect that it hasn’t been done before,” says squadron leader Hugh Nichols, the British pilot who will fly the F-35B at the two shows, in an interview with Aviation Week.
“Most people would have thought this [the deployment] was going to happen in a couple of years.
“In the big picture, we are in the relatively early days of the program and this is a big movement, flying aircraft a long way across the world.
“We will be testing the refueling, the security, and the computer system that runs the maintenance. These are of course, all things that we would have had to test anyway, at some point, but this is a great opportunity to gain knowledge now that we will need later.”
The U.S. Marine Corps has selected the aircraft that will make the trip, and Nichols notes that stateside maintainers are already “grooming them” to ensure they are ready to make the journey. The U.K. has fewer options to send on the show circuit. Nichols will be bringing the third British fighter, BK-3, currently the only U.K. F-35B capable of short-takeoff-and-vertical-landings.
Until June 4, the longest flight in an F-35B was just 5.8 hr., so Marine Corps pilots from Yuma, Arizona, carried out a series of endurance sorties up to 8.5 hr. long in preparation for the overwater flight.
Prior to the deployment, the Marine Corps jets will fly from MCAS Yuma, where they will be joined by the British jet flying in from Eglin AFB, Florida. When they meet up, the aircraft will depart with the tankers. Nichols and his Marine Corps counterparts have drawn up a role demonstration of the aircraft. After rehearsing the demonstration in the simulator, Nichols performed his first demo at NAS Pensacola, Florida, on May 30 and was later awarded Public Display Authority by senior USMC and RAF officers during a rehearsal at Yuma on June 10.
Marine Corps pilots have already flown their demos at air shows at Yuma and at Cherry Point, North Carolina. All the pilots have trained to carry out the same display, so any one of them can fly the demonstrations at the two air show locations.
For each display, two aircraft will be started up, one acting as an air spare in the event of a technical problem, which is a standard practice at major air shows so aircraft do not miss their display slots.
“This won’t be a Typhoon display, we are showing the unique aspects of the airplane, but it is not going to be doing 50 Alphas [angle of attack maneuvers] and [pulling] 9gs, because we don’t have that flight clearance,” Nichols says.
“We are not going to do a vertical landing, because the surfaces that we need to have on the deck to conduct such a landing do not exist at Fairford or at Farnborough. Hovering is possible, however, so the role demo will include some maneuvers that show off the potential of the aircraft, along with some high-speed passes.”
The 15-min. flight demonstration will include a short takeoff, high- and low-speed passes and hovering, says Mike Rein, aspokesman. At least seven demonstrations are slated for the deployment.
The air display will culminate with slow-speed landing at around 100 kt.
Consideration is still being given to having one of the aircraft in the static display at Royal International Air Tattoo, but that will not be possible at Farnborough. Indeed the F-35 will not even land at the trade show outside London, operating instead from Fairford.
Despite reports, the Marines will not be constructing hangars or sun shelters for the F-35s, instead they will be housed and operated from permanent structures built to support B-2 operations. As a U.S. airfield, Fairford already has the necessary security measures in place to support the F-35’s operations, while engineers have tested the base’s computer networks to ensure they have the connectivity and security necessary for the aircraft’s support system—the Autonomic Logistics Information System—to reach back to servers in the U.S.
According to officials at Lockheed Martin, lessons learned from the U.K. visit will help to support planning for the first scheduled forward deployment of the USMC F-35B to Japan in 2017.
Lockheed adds that for part of the spares logistics planning for the Fairford visit, precautionary arrangements have also been organized for shipments via FedEx.
Orlando Carvalho, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, which manufactures the F-35, says reliable operations will be the most challenging part of the deployment to the U.K. “I know we can do it,” he says, noting that two F-35Bs operated ship-based trials consistently during in 2011 and 2013. But, he acknowledges, keeping the planes flying continuously for both events will be demanding.
Reliability is “behind where it needs to be” today, Lorraine Martin, F-35 executive vice president, confirms. But as retrofits are infused into new jets on the line—and eventually added to the earlier ones produced—constancy is increasing. The Navy’s small fleet has been far more reliable, she says, because they are among the most recent to roll off the line and include retrofits to faults identified early in the flight-test program.
For the Royal International Air Tattoo, the international debut of the F-35 is a huge coup, one that the organizers have been working to achieve for the last six years, according to the show’s chief executive, Tim Prince.
“There are many challenges to solve before the aircraft arrive at Fairford, and we have had many meetings discussing issues such as ground support and security, but we have a huge advantage in that the show is held on a U.S. base,” says Prince.
“The Air Tattoo attracts [several] air chiefs each year, but the number who have signed up to attend increased significantly after we announced the attendance of the F-35.
“It goes to show that the world will be watching in July,” he adds.