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.”