Lockheed promises tailhook fix to Navy’s F-35C

The Pentagon plans to test the new tailhook assembly in Lakehurst this summer followed by carrier tests later this year.

Lockheed Martin has come up with a new design for the tailhook on the F35 Joint Strike Fighters  that should allow the Navy variant, the F-35C, to land on carriers and speed the long-delayed process of getting the aircraft out to the fleet, Lockheed and Navy officials said Wednesday.

Navy officials also said that they’ll have to do refits of the big-deck L-class of helicopter assault ships to accommodate the extreme heat and noise generated by the Marine Corps’ vertical-landing version of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35B.

The tailhook and ship overhauls were disclosed at a generally upbeat forum involving Navy, Marine and industry representatives on the status of the F35 program, the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken by the Defense Department.

“There’s a little bit of pressure coming down on our heads” on the F35s, said Vice Adm. David Dunaway, head of the Naval Air Systems Command.  “We’re now in the meat of this program where we’re either going to succeed or fail. The Joint Strike Fighter has to fit in — it has to fit into the carrier air wing, and it has to fit into the MAGTF (Marine Air Ground Task Force),” Dunaway said.

“I can promise you that problems will occur” in the process of acquiring 260 F-35C Navy versions of the JSF, and 353 F-35B Marine versions, Dunaway said.

One of the problems was the initial design of the tailhook, which was a challenge for Lockheed Martin in that it had to be concealed within the airplane to enhance its stealth capability.

In testing, the tailhooks were failing to catch the arresting wires that are stretched across a carrier’s flight deck to bring the aircraft to a halt.

“Our original design was not performing as expected,” said Lorraine Martin, Lockheed Martin’s executive vice president for the F35 Lightning II program. Martin said the “toe” of the tailhook, the part that grabs the wire, had been re-designed along with the “hold down damper” gear that forces the tailhook down on the deck.

“It’s now in line with what the legacy aircraft uses,” Martin said of the new F-35 tailhook. She said the new assembly will be tested this summer at the Navy’s Lakehurst, N.J., facility and carrier tests were expected later this year.

Dunaway said he believed Lockheed Martin had found the right tailhook fix before he beck pedaled and said: “I will be a trust but verify person.” Rear Adm. Randollph Mahr, the deputy Program Executive Officer for the F-35, said “I have high confidence that that tailhook will be catching wires at Lakehurst.”

In other testing, the Navy found that its L-class ships would have to be adapted to the F-35, and “ship change notices are going out now to the L-class ships,” said Rear Adm. Mark Darrah, commander of the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division. “We have to adapt the ships to the new environment” that comes with the F-35s, he said.

The Navy was adding Thermion coating to the flight decks to guard against the heat blast from the vertical-lift engines of the F-35Bs, Darrah said. Additional baffling will be added to the substructure to lower the decibel level below decks, he said.

The $400 billion-plus F-35 program has been hit by a string of technical setbacks and is now running about 70 percent over initial cost estimates and is years behind schedule.

The U.S. still plans to buy 2,443 of the single-seat F-35s – a conventional landing and takeoff F-35A model the Air Force; a short takeoff and vertical landing F-35B version for the Marines, and a carrier-based F-35C version for the Navy.

Britain, Italy, Netherlands, Australia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, and Turkey have agreed to partner in the F-35 program, but several of the partner nations have been backing away from the deal as problems have mounted in production and testing.

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Richard Sisk
Richard Sisk is a reporter for Military.com. He can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.