Navy Flying: No More Tricky Landings?
SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE
November 14, 2014
Joint Strike Fighter test pilots discuss results of sea trials off San Diego
ABOARD THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER NIMITZ – For the past 10 days, four Navy test pilots have done what no aviator has done before: Fly the new F-35 jet fighter on and off an aircraft carrier.
What's it like to land the Pentagon's newest and possibly most-scrutinized airplane on a pitching deck – usually considered the toughest job in naval aviation?
No longer a big challenge, one pilot said.
Computers do so much of the grunt work that landing is less of a hands-on job, according to pilots who have tested the Navy version of the Joint Strike Fighter off the coast of San Diego.
“It makes landing on the boat a routine task,” said Cmdr. Tony “Brick” Wilson, who made the historic first landing Nov. 3.
The comparison is not unlike the addition of cruise control to cars, he said.
“It's always been fun and challenging,” Wilson said of landing on a flight deck. “This makes it fun.”
The Navy and F-35 contractor Lockheed-Martin are performing the first at-sea trials for the Navy's variant of the jet, which is designed to land on aircraft carriers with a tail hook.
Officials gave a broad overview of the performance of two test jets to a group of defense journalists on Thursday.
Of 102 tail hook landings through Wednesday, the majority had hit the third of four wires stretched across the Nimitz flight deck, according to several Navy representatives.
Known in Navy flying circles as the “three wire,” it is considered the bulls-eye for carrier pilots.
“We are beating up the three wire,” Wilson told reporters.
None of the landings has used the first wire, which would mean the pilot tried to land too close to the beginning of the flight deck, officials said.
They wouldn't disclose raw data on the landings, saying that a full report is forthcoming.
There was one “bolter” – a term for when a pilot hits the deck in the wrong place and has to slam on the gas to quickly takeoff again.
The plane didn't have its tailhook extended, so the pilot hadn't intended to land, but he still struck the deck far long of a landing position, according to people familiar with the incident.
Officials attributed that one to high winds across the deck at 40 knots and deck officers still learning how to work with the F-35.
What's at stake with the sea trials is only the future of Navy jets.
F-35 program officials want the tests to go well, after the overall Joint Strike Fighter program has suffered cost overruns and repeated delays because of engine problems, computer-software troubles and other issues.
The Navy's F-35Cs will be the last off the ground, as the Marine Corps' variant is expected to be ready to go next year and the Air Force's is expected to reach that threshold in 2016.
Navy leaders hope to be up and running with the first real-world F-35C squadron in mid-2018 or early 2019. It will be based in the city of Lemoore in Central California, now home to Navy F/A-18 Hornet squadrons.
Aboard the Nimitz, testers are focused on where the aircraft hits the deck because of the new landing software in the Joint Strike Fighter.
It is highly automated. The computer steers the jet on a 3-degree angle down to the flight deck.
The pilot only has to make minor adjustments to the stick, if needed. The plane's engine responds, but the computers also move the aircraft's flaps.
The result is a quicker response, shaving off a second when seconds count, Navy pilots said, comparing the F-35C to carrier jets now in the fleet.
“To the trained eye, it's a noticeable difference,” said Lt. Chris Karapostoles, a test pilot filling the role of landing signal officer on the Nimitz.
“What I would say is, it's a much easier workload landing this plane. Because we're able to fly a very precise glide path, there's not a lot of deviation,” said Cmdr. Christian Sewell, one of the F-35 test pilots.
“This aircraft is more responsive.”
Working 60 miles off the coast of Mexico, Navy officials aboard the Nimitz said they hope to finish the sea trials a day early, on Sunday. The next round of testing, which will incorporate the weight of some weapons, is scheduled for late summer 2015.
One of the toughest tests so far was anticipated for after sunset Thursday: The first F-35 carrier landing at night.