Friday, December 15, 2006

Yesssssssss! The F-35 Flies

Minutes ago, at exacty 1240hrs Central Time, the first F-35 took off from the runway at Carswell Joint Reserve Base with it's chase escort and is currently flying it's first test mission. Godspeed to all on the flight.

It took off with two F-16 chase planes doing an airborne pickup and an F-18 safety chase in trail. the pilot held the plane on the runway until after the 3000 ft marker and the plane climbed effortlessly into the sky. We'll know later after the data is reduced how well it performed. Watch the news later for flight footage.

As this is a normal 'off-Friday' for the program, only the most diehard (or those unfortunate enough to HAVE to be here) were present.

We saw several days of tantalizing taxi tests this past week or so that had only elevated our anticipation. As each taxi test began, a crowd would materialize on this side of 'the base' where the Lockheed Martin plant (officially AF PLant 4) shares a runway with the Guard and Reserve units on Carswell proper. Modern technology kept all the project team members appraised of activities leading up to first flight, with a live feed of the test hangar goings-on continuously transmitted throughout the plant via company intranet. So with every taxi test, the crowds grew bigger.

The bird looked great during ground tests. Out on the taxiway and runway, and away from obstructions and ground equipment, this was the first time we could really see what it really looked like. The landing gear is geometrically positioned farther back than one might expect: but weight-and-balance wise, it is probably close to a typical position relative to the center of gravity. The general layout makes the F-35 look 'fast'.

It looks lethal
The tweaks made to the earlier X-35 OML (outer mold line) design do it justice. The large volume planform (to carry more fuel and stores internally for 'stealth' purposes) gives it a husky, 'big-shouldered' look. The large unitary nose landing gear door is quite prominent with gear extended. The twin vertical stabilizers seem relatively small for the fuselage when compared to the F-15 and F-18, but look 'right' on this plane. The overall size still seems relatively small and compact.

It has a distinctive engine sound that is deeper and more full-bodied than the whine of an F-15 or F-16 engine -- probably due to the resonance of a larger-diameter engine core. It is relatively 'quiet' until the power is laid on and then a great rumble comes forth. When the power comes on, it gets the 'smash' up fast. (Mmmmmmm --I can hardly wait for the max performance tests later.)

I am definitely NOT "a fighter can do everything and do it better" guy. But I know airplanes and I know weapon systems: this one is "sweet" either way.

Today's flight caps years of development -- not to mention decades of programmatic redirection. We still have years of work left to develop it to its full potential of course. Time will tell if we keep getting the support and funding that will let us do the job, or if we suffer the same fate as the F-22, the B-2, and a lot of other systems.

Update: The plane and chase aircraft came back about 40 minutes later. No cameras allowed where I was standing, but JAWA has some pics of the flight: most are real ;-).

I've read 4-5 news reports that are out now. It is unfortunate that the Ignorati that run the media cannot seem to mention the aircraft without couching it in terms of being the 'most expensive/costly aircraft/defense program' ever. As the most advanced aircraft of its kind, that is going to be bought in larger quantities by more nations at the same time than ever before: what exactly is it that would make anyone think it ought NOT be an expensive program?

Update 2, 10:32 12/16/06: The Fort Worth 'Startlegram' has an article where they have some explanation about the short flight and the plans for the next flight. I feel better about things after the test pilot raved about the flying qualities specifically instead of just calling it 'very successful' AND the fact they are planning to fly again after the weekend.

I will be surprised if they do even if the airplane is ready, because early in a flight test program (this is as 'early' as you can define the word) it takes more time than the schedule ever allows to digest the data from the last flight and learn something before the next.

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