Lockheed’s comprehensive Q&A on the F-35

Software, DAS, the helmet, the C's tailhook, EOTS, you name it -- it's all in here.

You’ve heard what Congress’ watchdog has to say about the F-35 program – it’s crazily over budget; outrageously behind schedule; and it has a lot of technical catching up before it can perform as advertised.

So what does Lightning II-builder Lockheed Martin say?

Steve O’Bryan, the vice president for F-35 business development, went into granular detail with reporters Tuesday at Lockheed’s annual media day outside Washington. It will not surprise you that his view of the world’s biggest defense program is slightly different from that of the Government Accountability Office.

O’Bryan acknowledged that F-35 is not where it should be, but he presented a series of data-rich slides and tried to make the case that all other things equal, this program is on track and doing well. Herewith, we’ve broken O’Bryan’s hour-long brief into a smaller set of digestible questions and answers, using his latest data and details.

Q: What kind of performance have you demonstrated on the three F-35 variants?

A: The jets have made 546 flights so far this year, compared to 401 planned, plus the jets continue to stay ahead of their scheduled test points. The Air Force’s F-35A has been flown through much of its performance envelope, all the way out to Mach 1.6; above 40,000 feet; and out to 9 Gs. Testing with “clean wings” – absent external pylons, stores or weapons – is going pretty well, and that’s important because that’s the configuration in which they’ll almost always fly in the real world.

“I have to tell you, as we see the future of the F-35 and look at the use case, clean wing is how we’re going fly this airplane 90 percent of the time,” O’Bryan said. “That is with internal weapons and internal air-to-air missiles – where we are right now is approaching 60 percent of clean wing full envelope test points. We are moving along; we are hitting all parts of the envelope; we are seeing a high-performing fifth-generation airplane.”

The Marine Corps’ F-35B is not quite as far along as the A, Lockheed says, since it’s the middle sibling, but it too has demonstrated much of its performance envelope. It has flown up to Mach 1.5, around 49,000 feet, and pulled up to 7 Gs. It has marked off more than half of its clean wing envelope test points.

The Navy’s C model, as the baby, is the least far along, though O’Bryan said “it’s fair to say we’re ahead of plan on flights and test points.” The C has flown at Mach 1.4, up toward 40,000 feet, and been taken to 7.5 Gs.

Q: What about weapons?

A: The F-35 has begun “weapons separation tests,” with the goal of building up to an actual, no-kidding weapons release later this year.

Q: What about the F-35’s onboard sensors, electronic warfare capabilities, targeting and pilot systems?

A: “As you can probably imagine, it’s very difficult for me to get an unclassified public release on the electronic warfare system, on the electronic attack, or other things, but I’ve tried to get as much as I possibly can,” O’Bryan said. He showed video that came from the F-35’s Distributed Aperture System and its Electro-Optical Targeting System, as well as a sensor picture from its synthetic aperture radar.

The F-35’s sensors and targeting capabilities are world-beating, Lockheed says, and O’Bryan gave one example: “What’s unique about the F-35 is the resolution that I can’t talk about, but what it enables is auto target recognition and auto target locating. So you get the ability to see and classify tanks, [armored personnel carriers], double-digit [surface-to-air missile] launchers that are unique. No other airplane has that capability. It’s able to do it through the weather and because of the computer power of the F-35 it is something unique to the F-35.”

In addition to its radar and laser targeting, the jet has six mid-wave infrared cameras that feed video right into the pilot’s helmet, enabling her to look anywhere, including through the floor of the airplane. The IR video is incredibly detailed, O’Bryan boasted. He showed video of an F-16 from the DAS perspective, and pointed out that even though it was not a conventional TV image, you could see the rivets on the fuselage and even the tail markings that showed the Viper was from Edwards AFB, Calif.

Q: Sounds pretty high speed, but isn’t the helmet the pilot needs to use all this jacked up?

A: Lockheed wouldn’t use that term – O’Bryan said the company believes it can make its original pilot helmet work as promised. He detailed the three major problems it has faced: “Latency” — a lag between what DAS sees and what it shows the pilot; “jitter” — the effect a jet’s natural shaking has on the image the pilot sees; and “night acuity” – how sensitive an F-35’s sensors are in total darkness.

O’Bryan said Lockheed believes new software – ah yes, software; we’ll get to that in a moment – can eliminate the latency problem. As of now the lag between what DAS sees and what a pilot sees is “measured in milliseconds.” Engineers think they can solve “jitter” by incorporating “inertial stabilization units,” like the ones you might find in a digital camera lens. And a new camera will enable Lockheed to improve an F-35’s night acuity, to the point where you can land a B on an amphib at midnight, in the middle of the ocean, with no lights.

In the meantime, as you read here last week, the program is also pursuing a second, less wham-o-dyne helmet in case the first one doesn’t materialize as promised. But could it take advantage of the cameras and sensors built into the F-35? O’Bryan said he didn’t know. The original helmet has flown “successfully” more than 2,000 times, he said, and Lockheed believes it can bring it into spec.

Meanwhile, the GAO report said it’s costing $80 million to both improve the original helmet and pursue a second one in parallel.

Q: Government watchdogs have said the F-35 software situation “is as complicated as anything on earth.” What’s the latest?

A: O’Bryan talked about it very carefully. He said 87 percent of the software the F-35 needs is flying on airplanes today, including test versions of the next major block due out this summer. He said 94 percent of it has been developed in the lab.

“The variance is small and it is contained,” he said. “Lockheed Martin and [DoD F-35 program executive officer] Vice Adm. David Venlet agree the schedule is adequate to support the software build and funding is adequate to complete the software build.”

O’Bryan said that Lockheed has added a “$100 million lab” to work on F-35 software and added “200 heads” to the software effort. He said Lockheed and the program are “recovering schedule” on the software, and he laid down a marker for when we’ll be able to see how it’s going.

“The test of that will be when we release the complete Block 2A software to flight test – that’s where I’d be able to give you a metric to demonstrate that,” O’Bryan said. It should appear “this summer. I’d ask you to measure us to that.”

O’Bryan did not discuss — and in fairness, no one asked him about — the Autonomic Logistics Information System, the software that F-35s and their crews will use to manage parts and maintenance. GAO has said that is even further behind than the airplanes’ software.

Q: All right, we’ve talked about the helmet and the software. What about the C’s tailhook redesign?

A: Here’s what O’Bryan said: “The distance between the main landing gear and the tailhook on the F-35C is the shortest of any naval aviation carrier airplane that we’ve had. Because we have to hide the hook — because if you had a hook exposed you wouldn’t be as stealthy airplane, that distance is tighter than any other. So it means when you roll over the wire when you land on the deck, the wire goes flush to the deck, and then you have to pick that wire up as it’s generally on the deck. So what we’ve had to do is re-design the hook shank.

Every airplane’s hook shank — as you’d imagine, you ground those things down, dragging it around, so it’s a remove-and-replace kind of thing. It has a bolt through the back of it and it holds on to the hook and we’ve redesigned that to have a lower center of gravity, or in a more mundane way, to make it a sharper hook point. And that allows us to pick up the wire. And we’ve already done testing on that. We’ve done it at 80, 90 and 100 knots and we’ve got a good design for the hook point now.

The other thing we need to do is, we need to make sure that the hook stays flush on the deck. So what you don’t want — and I was a Navy pilot, so I apologize if I’m using a lot of vernacular here – you want to keep that hook on the deck so it doesn’t bounce, or the words we used was skip. It can do that a couple different ways. It can move laterally and it can hit other stuff and just bounce, if you will. Another technical term. So what we’ve done is we’re going to modify what’s called the hold-down damper, kind of a good name for a thing because it does exactly that, it holds the hooks down, it dampens any oscillation. We’ll increase pressure on hook to do that.

The whole thing is a remove-and-replace assembly so any modifications we make to it is an easy fix.”

Q: So when will we actually see an F-35C make its first trap aboard an aircraft carrier?

A: O’Bryan: “We’re accumulating loads; we’ve done rolling arrestments; we’ll do field arrestments next year and the plan is to go to the boat in early 2014, well in time to make the US Navy [initial operational capability].

Q: Wait a tick – according to the Joint Program Office, there is no official IOC for these jets right now. Is that an internal Lockheed IOC or one the Navy uses internally?

A: O’Bryan: “Why can I say that? I think you’ll see the amount of margin I have to say that means it’s reasonable to assume that. The Navy stated IOC publicly as post-Block 3F software, which the [F-35]A completes before the B, which completes before the C. On that, we’re not scheduled finish Block 3F testing until after 2016. So going to the boat in 2014 – they’ve said IOC is post-Block 3F, so there’s some margin there.”

Q: There was another component kerfuffle about a variant of this airplane: Canada had a little political dustup awhile back because its aerial refueling tankers use the probe-and-drogue system for its CF-18 Hornets. In that setup, the tanker trails a basket and fighter extends its own probe to refuel. But Canada plans to buy F-35As, which were designed for the U.S. Air Force’s refueling system, in which a human operator aboard the tanker flies a boom into a port on the fighter – in this case, on the A’s spine, aft of the cockpit. So has Lockheed talked with Canada about buying Navy-model Cs, to keep the probe-and-drogue setup, or modifying its As?

A: O’Bryan: “We anticipated a number of the operators would want probe-and-drogue refueling in the F-35A and we kept that space empty on the F-35A to accommodate probe and drogue refueling. We‘ve done a number of studies – funded studies, not projects – funded studies to evaluate that, paid for by the countries who want that to happen. It’s a relatively easy … doable change.”

So if you’re keeping score at home, you could almost count this as a fourth variant of the F-35 – because this program wasn’t complicated enough.