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October 28, 2011

DoD testers urges delay in F-35 pilot training

In a report that's sure to stir more controversy and provoke the ire of Lockheed Martin and the generals pushing for the F-35 program to move faster so they can buy more planes sooner, the Pentagon's weapons testing office is warning that pilot training in the new jets should be delayed for safety reasons.

Director of Operational Testing Michael Gilmore, Bloomberg News reports in its subscriber only BGOV news service (not available online at this point), warns that Air Force plans to begin pilot training in November risk a "serious mishap" due to unresolved safety issues.

Gilmore, in an Oct. 21 memo, said there are “serious concerns” with commencing initial training for F-35 pilots as early as November at Eglin Air Force Base.

Gilmore recommended a delay of as much as 10 months to fly the Lockheed Martin Corp. plane 1,500 more hours on top 1,000 already flown at Edwards Air Force Base,  by experienced test pilots.

The F-35 “has not yet met the prerequisites previously set for reducing” air-mission abort rates and “resolving other safety-related issues before initiating training,” Gilmore said in a four-page memo to the department’s top weapons buyer, Frank Kendall.

Computer models project “at least four” training aborts before take-off and “four in-air aborts, including one in- flight emergency,” Gilmore wrote. “There is a significant risk new failures will be discovered for which there would be no corrective actions developed for the pilot to implement,” he wrote.

Aborts use up spare parts and lead to costly additional delays in a development phase that’s already been extended four years. Gilmore’s concerns have been elevated to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, said a defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to comment publicly.

“The consequences of a mishap would overwhelm the very modest benefits of beginning flight training this fall,” Gilmore said in the memo obtained by Bloomberg News. Among the open safety issues are software fixes to correct a flaw that grounded test aircraft for two weeks in August.

The military services, contractors and Pentagon officials often ignore and even belittle the testing office. Former Rep. Curt Weldon, D-Pa., once called then DOTE head Phil Coyle a "pencil pusher" for reports questioning the quality of V-22 Osprey testing and the aircraft's safety -- even after V-22 crashes. After all, its important to getting weapons into production and contractor revenues flowing faster.

Lexington Institute analyst and Lockheed Martin consultant Loren Thompson continues to decry the Pentagon's insistence on "superfluous flight tests."

In this case the Pentagon says it is listening to Gilmore:

Kendall’s spokeswoman, Cheryl Irwin, in an e-mail statement said the test office “has raised concerns about when flight training should begin given the current state of the test program. The Air Force is reviewing these concerns and will ensure flight safety is adequately addressed.”

Irwin said “it is very important to note -- a final decision on starting training has not been made and at this time no flight training is taking place.”

- Bob Cox



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Geoff Koh

It would be tragic, yet ironic if the JSF Program was utlimately killed due to overwhelming complexities of the computer code -- the game-changing nature of the code being the original lure for the Program in the first place.


Well this is great that they are hiring more pilots and more training is taking place soon....We are about to start november...

Lee Gaillard

Good for Gilmore. And I'm sure Coyle would agree. As would widows of Marines killed in multiple V-22 Osprey testing crashes.

It's time to go back to the future, back to the 1950s when they built and tested a military aircraft prototype BEFORE beginning production. The XB-46, XB-47, and XB-48 all competed for that medium jet bomber contract, and the best plane won: the B-47. THEN they began production...of over 1700 Stratojets.

Today? It's all about 'spiral development' and 'concurrent development.' Result? Multiple V-22 crashes that killed 30 people and near-cancellation of the entire program with production lines shut down to a bare trickle for 18 months while the Blue Ribbon Panel decided the Osprey's fate. But the ongoing production during 'concurrent development' saved the Osprey's bacon: too much had already been invested for the program to be cancelled.

And today look at Boeing with the 787. 'Develop as you go'...with something like 40 787s parked at Paine Field, undeliverable until changes required by glitches revealed in test flights get incorporated into the airframes. Expensive and complicated retrofitting, massive delays, and billions of dollars in capital tied up--and airlines seething at not being able to put ordered aircraft into service.

The F-35? We've all heard of the major weight problems that halted production for a while, and the cracked bulkhead that had to be redesigned, and the millions of lines of computer code required and the software that has not yet been completed and tested. With today's aircraft so computer-dependent, to begin training flights with incomplete software suites that have not yet been wrung out is inviting disaster. Meanwhile, like the V-22 and the 787, LockheedMartin just keeps churning them out...

'Nuff said.

Michael Ritter

@Lee Gaillard

It is deeper than that. There are only two major players for contracts like this, Lockheed and Boeing. Northrup will throw in from time to time, as they did with the YF-23. And they lose more for political reasons than technical. The rest of the competition was either bought, or went out of business. Without the prospect of losing business to a competitor with a better product, Lockheed has no reason to perform any better. If you want a US gen 5 fighter, it is a Lockheed product. The F-35 had competition, Boeing's X-32.

Lockheed's design won on the promise of what they said it would be capable of doing. The same thing was true on the days of the B-47. However, the promises of the B-47 were based on reality. The decision makers at Boeing knew what was possible and what wasn't. In the modern era the decision makers make promises that are beyond what their capabilities are, with the hope that they can squeeze more money out of the DoD later to make up for the shortcomings. Just like the V-22, too much was spent to justify canceling the program. The cancellation costs can exceed the cost of finishing the program, i.e. B-2, A-12, Presidential helicopter.

The same holds for the 787. An executive decision was made to promise more than what their own people said they could deliver. They also ignored all of the warning signs as the program progressed.

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