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July 27, 2010

STOVL F-35 not flying so often

BF-1 Short takeoff_March_17_10 Give Lockheed Martin CEO Bob Stevens some props for telling the truth, warts and all. Stevens, in the midst of reassuring Wall Street investment analyst Monday that all is well with the the F-35 program, dropped one morsel that was known to some degree, but not in detail.

Flight testing of the F-35B STOVL model intended for the Marines is lagging behind schedule at the Navy's Patuxent River flight test center.

At the end of June, Stevens said, only 74 of 95 test flights planned for the first six months had been conducted. Lockheed spokesman John Kent updated that information after the call, saying 91 flights had been completed as of Tuesday. The goal is to have completed 125 F-35B flights by the end of July.

Stevens said the component “failure rates are higher than predicted” and that Lockheed and the military test managers are working to understand why failures are occurring and how to improve their design and manufacture. Failing components are cooling fans that hold down fuel temperatures, lift fan doors actuators and other switches. Stevens said there have been no failures of key components of the STOVL propulsion systems, the engine or the lift fan system.

The lagging pace of test flights puts more pressure on a program already in the spotlight and facing an aggressive flight testing pace over the next few years to begin to compensate for the already years-long delays in development and soaring cost estimates.

By contrast, testing of the two other models is going well. The two F-35A aircraft being flown at Edwards Air Force Base in California and the one F-35C model, being flown at Fort Worth still, are both completing flights well ahead of plan.

- Bob Cox


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