WASHINGTON: The next two weeks will be enormously important for the Navy’s carrier-based version of the Joint Strike Fighter as two F-35Cs undergo extensive testing operating from the USS Nimitz. The Navy has been the least committed of the three services buying versions of the Joint Strike Fighter, so if the two planes being tested perform well it could help change the views of some senior Navy leaders. Anything less than a sterling performance, of course, could well give reluctant Navy officials more ammunition to buy more F-18s and stretch out or shrink their planned purchase of F-35Cs.
Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan was very upbeat about the aircraft during a program briefing with reporters yesterday. The two F-35Cs are flying directly to the carrier and will land using arresting gear, he said. No cranes gently lifting the planes onto the Nimitz’s deck. Nope. These aircraft will fly the last portion of their trip and are expected to execute the carrier version’s very first landing on a carrier with a small group of reporters watching. After several months of uncertainty whether CF-3 and CF-5 would both be ready to fly — complete with new tail hook assemblies and huge amounts of test instrumentation — Bogdan told us yesterday they would both fly to the ship. As Breaking D readers know, the tail hook on the F-35Cs had to be redesigned. The initial design did not reliably engage the cable and wasn’t strong enough. The Arresting Hook System got better damping, changed the shape of the hook and made it and where it connects with the airframe, much stronger. During tests over the last five months, F-35C test pilots had to deliberately land their aircraft on the nose gear to mimic what can happen when pitching seas may drive a carrier deck right up into a plane as it lands. A Navy pilot I spoke with said the physical punishment of such a landing is “pretty impressive” — not to mention the stresses it can place on the plane. I’ll be in San Diego and on the Nimitz all next week covering the tests for you.