Beesley became the first person to pilot a Joint Strike Fighter
when he took off at Fort Worth, Texas, in the first F-35A on
December 15, 2006. Thus began deliveries, tests, and operational efforts with today’s F- 35 fleet.
F- 35 problems
Delays, cost, and technical issues are all important in any discussion of the F- 35. The recent history of the F- 35 includes
a variety of delays. The Eglin wing was up and running and
initially scheduled to receive aircraft 10 months before the first
F- 35 arrived, not on October 1, 2010 as once planned but on
July 14, 2011.
Most analysts feel that no one really knows the total cost of
the F- 35 program or of an individual aircraft. In 2010, the Pentagon said that delays and cost overruns had resulted in a cost per aircraft
that exceeded the original contract
by 50%. According to the Pentagon’s
Selected Acquisition Report subsequently released last March, a single
F-35A now costs $184 million, roughly
double the price once predicted. (One
strong sales point for the F- 35 was that
it would be far less costly than the F- 22
Raptor, which, as it turned out, had
the same sticker price as the Pentagon
figure). According to the Lockheed
Martin website, the “average estimated
unit recurring flyaway cost in 2010
dollars” is “about” $64 million per
aircraft. Getting into a discussion of
developmental versus flyaway cost, or
“then-year dollars,” is enough to give
anyone a headache. The bottom line is
that it ain’t as cheap as once claimed,
and it doesn’t cost as much as some
All new aircraft have technical problems. The F- 35 has had more, over a
longer span of years, than most. A
2011 Pentagon study cited 13 major problems. The F- 35’s integrated power package was “unreliable and difficult to service.”
Safety concerns surrounded lightning protection and thermal
management and fire hazards were present in terms of the fuel
dump system. The Pentagon also said, remarkably, that the
F- 35 airframe was unlikely to last through the planned lifes-pan of the aircraft.
Other problems vary, and none appear to be beyond solu-
tion. They include:
Noise: Local protests have brought about a reduction in the
total of F-35s scheduled for Eglin from 107 to 59. The F- 35, it
turns out, is twice as loud as the twin-engine F- 15, reaching
up to 90 decibels. An Air Force study conducted at Eglin deter-
mined that once aircraft sound levels exceed 75 decibels, more
than one third of nearby residents become “highly annoyed.”
Citizen protests over noise levels are also taking place in Bur-
lington, Vermont, where the first Air National Guard F-35As
will be assigned.
F-35B fuel-line: The Pentagon grounded all 15 F-35Bs ( 11
at Eglin, three at Patuxent, and one at Yuma) after a January
18 mishap in which a fuel line associated with the STOVL lift
fan detached and fell on a training flight at Eglin. At press
time, plans were under way to subject all F-35B fuel lines to
CT scans, a process that could take many weeks. The F-35A
and F-35C versions are not affected because they don’t use the
same fuel lines.
The first Marine Corps airframe, known as BF-1, conducts at early flight over the Chesapeake Bay from the naval test center at Patuxent River, Maryland. (Photo by U.S. Navy)
issue would be completely resolved by spring and that F-35C
carrier suitability trials will take place next year.
Helmet-mounted cueing sight/display system: Already discussed above, this sight places a “virtual” head-up display on
the pilot’s visor. The manufacturer says it is making progress
with “shudder,” or vibration, but also acknowledges that it is
exploring alternatives, including the possibility of a physical
HUD on the instrument panel. Marine Corps Commandant
Gen. James “Tamer” Amos, a fighter pilot, told Reuters, “The
helmet is a critical piece that needs to be solved,” Amos said.
F- 35 prospects
In dozens of interviews with people in the F- 35 program, it was
clear that all believe the problems will be solved and a bright
future will open up for the fighter being assembled in the mile-long, windowless Lockheed Martin plant at Fort Worth, Texas.
At the Texas plant, many F- 35 systems are being developed
in ground-based laboratories and on the Cooperative Avionics
Test Bed, a converted 737 that acts as an airborne laboratory.
The Lockheed Martin CATBird has made 140 flights in support
of the F- 35 and has deployed frequently to Eglin and Edwards.
The F- 35 itself will start showing up in more locations soon.