Lockheed: F-35B is ready for sea. Is the ship?

Company officials are confident their super-jet can operate at sea. What no one knows is how warships will respond.

Lockheed Martin’s top man on the F-35 Lightning II said he is confident the Marines’ B model is ready for its first at-sea tests next month aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp. In fact, he said, the tests are as much for the ship as they are for the aircraft.

Lockheed Executive Vice President Tom Burbage told reporters at the Air Force Association’s trade show outside Washington that, when it’s time for the real thing, it may actually prove easier for pilots to land at sea than at a ground base. Lockheed and the Marines have been testing B vertical landings in all manner of crosswinds and even tail winds, Burbage said, but on a ship, pilots usually can land straight into the wind, making for at least a more predictable dynamic. Navy warships can turn into the wind, or create it with their speeds, to help with flight operations.

What the Navy and Marines really want to find out from the Wasp tests is how the ships behave when Bs take their now-routine short takeoffs and vertical landings onto a steel deck in very close quarters with sailors, Marines and sensitive equipment. For years, naval aviation skeptics have imagined horror stories in which the B’s powerful jet blast melts a ship’s flight deck, or blows off radomes, antennae or who knows what other important topside gear on Navy amphibs.

Burbage said the Marines and Navy will add many new instruments to the Wasp and the two Bs for these tests, to “characterize the environment” when the jets are flying on and off the ship. Burbage said the current plans are for the Bs to make 67 vertical landings on the Wasp and at least that many short takeoffs.

As for the Navy’s C-model, it will make its first catapult launches and arrested landings on an aircraft carrier next spring, Burbage said, although he reminded reporters the program has already finished its catapult testing. Engineers needed to learn how to rig a Navy jet blast deflector so that its cooling systems could accommodate the one very hot point where the C will blast it on takeoff, as opposed to the two hot points of the twin-engined F/A-18.

As we’ve seen before, DepSecDef Ash Carter wouldn’t positively affirm that successful ship tests would be enough to get the B off DoD’s “probation,” but they’ll be a major milestone. And, provided things go well, the photos and video of the Bs operating on the Wasp will hit Washington while it’s still in budget battle deja vu, affording a big new bargaining chip for defenders of the program. Lockheed may do its best to put them on every bus, inside the Metro, in every newspaper — anywhere it thinks it can catch the eyes of Hill people.