Lockheed: Many F-35B landings won’t be vertical

Most of the time, the Marines' version of the F-35 will be able to land down the runway like a normal fighter, officials think, reducing wear on its STOVL components.

A Marine Corps photo set this week shows a squadron of veteran AV-8B Harriers at work in Afghanistan supporting troops on the ground, and it brought to mind one of the capabilities the Marines’ F-35B Lightning II will have that the Harrier doesn’t. Everybody knows that the B can  “transform,” like a Decepticon, for short takeoffs and vertical landings on Navy amphibious ships at sea. But unlike a Harrier, the B also can land like a conventional airplane, said Lockheed Martin vice president Steve O’Bryan at the company’s big media day last month.

So what, you might say. Well, the Harrier doesn’t land conventionally: Every time it comes back, even to a ground base, it needs to do a vertical landing or a rolling vertical landing, O’Bryan said, burning fuel and working its jet nozzles more or less the same way. But if a Lightning II pilot wants to, she’ll be able to land down a runway like a normal fighter jet, without engaging the lift fan or all those other ports and hatches and bells and whistles.

If many — or most — of the flights that a fighter makes over its life are not under operational circumstances, because pilots are training or ferrying their jets, that could mean that a typical B won’t need its vertical landing capability most of the time.

“I don’t want to speak for the Marine Corps, but as we do analysis for the STOVL variant, [we think] most of the landings will be conventional landings — you can come back and land on a normal 8,000-foot airstrip without stressing all those components,” O’Bryan said. “Of course it’s up to the operational units, but why would I stress those if I don’t have to? … That is an option that’s not available on the current generation of STOVL airplanes.”