UK F-35 testing at Patuxent River

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With deliveries gathering pace, Aviation Week visited Patuxent River, where testing is still full-steam ahead with the ITF. Also a look ahead to when the UK puts to sea again with fast jets.

Close-up on an F-35A at Luke AFB, Arizona. (photo: Nigel Howarth)

The UK is one of nine partner nations in the Lockheed-Martin F-35 program, which is now really gathering pace. After years of development using 20 Systems Development & Demonstration (SDD) aircraft, of which 14 are flyers, over 150 production F-35s have now been delivered.

An F-35A and B sit side by side at RAF Fairford. (photo: Nigel Howarth)

Seven nations have already taken delivery of their first aircraft, and more will join this growing band in the remainder of 2016. Aviation Week recently paid a couple of visits to NAS Patuxent River, Maryland to see some test-flying close-up and to talk with some of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy personnel stationed there.

Pax River is home to the Integrated Test Force (ITF), flying all the B and C models destined for the US Marines, US Navy, RAF/RN and the Italian Air Force. Most of the projected 3,000 or so Lightning II's are slated to be F-35As, and testing of those is done at Edwards AFB, California. The ITF is a multi-national team made up of serving military and civilian personnel, including 19 Britons.

One of the ITF's fleet of F-35Bs taxies out at Pax River. (photo: Nigel Howarth)

The UK will have have two new aircraft carriers with ski-jumps to take their B's to sea, with more based on the mainland. Squadron Leader Andy Edgell will be the lead MoD (Ministry of Defence) test pilot on board the Queen Elizabeth, with testing taking place off the US East Coast. Back in the UK, the famous 617 'Dambuster' squadron at RAF Marham is being readied to house F-35s, whilst the Navy's unit will be 809 squadron. So far no decision has been taken to when or if any testing will be carried out in the UK.

Ski-jump testing is just one aspect of the trials work done at Pax River and  Edgell described taking off in one as "effortless - you only need to keep it straight and most of the hard work is done for you". A ski-jump take-off starts with a normal roll, then the aircraft knows when it's on the ramp, and adjusts its systems accordingly for a ramp take-off. This is just one of many instances related of the intelligence of the onboard computers. RN Commander Greg Smith added "it's easier to land the F-35 on a carrier in rough seas than landing a helicopter". The computers take over so much, relieving pilot workload, so they can have full focus on the mission in hand. The general opinion of the test pilots is that the F-35 is "easy to fly" because of its simplified control system and computer-controlled thrust.

The F-35B can hover at around 40,000 lbs weight, and technicians back in the control room at the ITF who have been watching hover tests out on the field via video links, have been known to tap their monitors, wondering if the feed had frozen. It hadn't - the F-35 is able to hover so perfectly that it looks totally stationary. During recent testing in UK waters, with the base-ship off the Southwest tip of the country, missions were carried out to the north as far as Scotland. At the end of the mission, the pilot is able to instruct the computer to effectively "take me home" and then the aircraft returns itself to the ship, perhaps 200 miles away, and settles into a perfect hover over the deck. As the ship moves in up to three directions at once, the F-35 remains at the same height above the same spot, all auto-controlled. All the pilot has to do is to lower it vertically down for another perfect landing. Commander Christian Sewell describes how slow the F-35B can land and says "it's a very low workload for the pilot".

A Marines F-35B of VMFA-121 at MCAS Miramar. (photo: Nigel Howarth)

The F-35C meanwhile is the US Navy's choice, to be launched with 'cat and trap' as per their other carrier types. The C model has the 'Delta Path' system which auto-flies a 3.5 degree glidescope before taking the wire. Delta Path is the F-35's equivalent of the 'Magic Carpet' system as used on F/A-18 Hornets. During carrier testing at sea, the C took the wire every single time, quite remarkable.

Back to the ITF, and during our visit, the Royal Air Force was operating an Airbus A330 MRTT tanker out of Pax River, carrying out tanking trials with the F-35s. A typical test mission could last several hours, with over 20 dry contacts. An RAF A330MRTT takes off at Pax to engage in more tanker trials. (photo: Nigel Howarth)

Other kinds of tests carried out including launching at different speeds, new weapons loading, flying with different types of weapons simultaneously and asymmetrically.

An ITF F-35B launches from Pax River with multiple weapons loaded. (photo: Nigel Howarth)

The F-35 program has notched up numerous milestones this year, with the first Transatlantic crossings taking place in February, when the first Italian aircraft 'AL-1' (assembled at the Cameri FACO) arrived at Patuxent River from the Azores. AL-1 was subsequently based at Pax for Electromagnetic Environmental Effects testing, referred to as E3 or E-cubed. In May it headed further West to join the growing multi-national fleet at Luke AFB in Arizona. Only days later, two Netherlands Air Force crossed the ocean eastwards to take part in the Leeuwarden Air Show. They later returned to the USA. In early July no less than five F-35s headed to the UK to participate in the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) and then the Farnborough Air Show. The RAF's first F-35B along with two USMC F-35Bs participated at both events, while the USAF's two F-35As headed home after RIAT.

A USAF F-35A of the 56th FW at Luke AFB. (photo: Nigel Howarth)

 

In 2010, the UK Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR) called for the scrapping of the Harrier and Sea Harrier fleets, and their final flights were in December that year.

A former Royal Navy Sea Harrier FRS2 now in use as a display aircraft. (photo: Nigel Howarth)

At a stroke, the UK was left without any STOVL aircraft, and more importantly, no seaborne fixed-wing aircraft. The nation's carriers were also decommissioned, and it would be at least 8 years before that gap was closed. When the Royal Navy finally does go to sea in a couple of years with F-35s on the Queen Elizabeth, it will be a much more potent force than it was with the Harriers.

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