WASHINGTON: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will lift the probationary status tomorrow that the F-35B has labored under since his predecessor imposed it one year ago. This lifts a dark veil from the program, which many have critics have targeted for elimination.
The Pentagon has been rife with rumors about this for two weeks but a source finally came forward today to utter the magic words. “The SecDef is going to Pax River and the way the visit has been designed it’s pretty clear the way he stands on the airplane. He’ll lift probation,” said Robbin Laird, a defense consultant who works with the Marines, among other clients. A Pentagon official said it was likely. Panetta is heading to the Navy’s Patuxent River test site tomorrow morning to be briefed on the F-35 program.
The Marine aircraft can land vertically and take off in a very short distance, making it ideal for the Marines, who plan to station both them on so-called large deck amphibs — in reality mini-aircraft carriers — and on land.
Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos has penned a letter to Panetta recommending that probation be lifted. We confirmed this with a Marine source this afternoon. Amos has been pushing for the plane to be taken off probation pretty much since Panetta entered the Pentagon.
Two of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ criticisms of the F-35B STOVL aircraft were that flight tests were behind schedule and that the aircraft had yet to land on and take off from an amphibious assault ship, the type of vessel that will serve as the STOVL’s home away from home in the Marine Corps. As of Nov. 1, the F-35B had completed 291 of 293 test flights planned for calendar 2011, putting it 13% ahead of its new schedule. By the same date, two B variants had completed more than two weeks of sea trials on the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, during which they completed 72 short takeoffs and vertical landings, all but flawlessly. One pilot said his biggest problem was putting the nose wheel down in a one-foot square target on the ship’s pitching deck.
One of the issues likely to dog the F-35B, at least in the eyes of Pentagon testers, is its weight. We’ll see if Amos’ letter to Panetta addresses that or if the issue comes up during tomorrow’s trip to Pax River.