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Air Force Expands F-35 Trials Over Tester’s Objections

Air Force Started F-35 Training Review Despite Tester Concerns
An F-35 Lightning II arrives at Eglin Air Force base, Florida in July. The planned training “omits anything to do with combat capability because” the F-35s at Eglin “have none,” Pentagon test director Michael Gilmore wrote in a July 20 memo. Source: U.S. Air Force

The U.S. Air Force is expanding pilot training for Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter over objections from the Pentagon’s top weapons tester that the move increases the danger of a “serious mishap.”

After six months of limited check-out sorties for the plane, the Pentagon’s costliest weapon, the Air Force this month began 65 days of riskier training without ground-control personnel constantly monitoring instruments to warn of flaws.

Considering the aircraft’s “immaturity,” conducting the so-called uninstrumented training flights “entails significant risk with no benefit,” Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s testing director, wrote in a memo to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley obtained by Bloomberg News.

Gilmore’s concerns about flight training add to debate over the fighter program whose estimated cost has increased 70 percent since 2001 to $397 billion in current dollars while encountering flaws or delays with its software, a pilot helmet and aircraft deliveries. “Repair work” is needed to mend the Pentagon’s frayed relations with Lockheed over the F-35, General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said Sept. 18.

Michael Rein, a spokesman for the Bethesda, Maryland-based company, said in a statement Sept. 17, “We remain committed to continuing our work to solve program challenges and build on the momentum and success we’ve achieved during the past couple of years.” Welsh and Rein were commenting on issues other than the previously undisclosed training dispute.

Lockheed, the world’s largest defense contractor, rose 55 cents to $92.46 in New York trading yesterday and has gained 14 percent this year.

Florida Base

The Air Force started the 65-day “operational utility evaluation” of flying qualities, maintenance training, ground simulators and classroom courses on Sept. 10 at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

Air Force Colonel Andrew Toth, commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing, said in a Sept. 7 press release that starting the drill “is another huge milestone.”

In a response to Gilmore’s criticism, Donley wrote, “We have taken great efforts to ensure that comprehensive safety and readiness reviews have been completed.”

Flights conducted at Eglin since March were a “deliberate and incremental approach” demonstrating the “system is ready for the next step,” Donley wrote in the response dated Aug. 27. The aircraft flew 121 sorties at Eglin since March for a combined 152.9 flight hours, according to service data.

‘Unprecedented Move’

The current exercise, if successful, would let the Air Force expand the number of pilots trained on the F-35 to 80 instructor pilots by December 2015 from five today. It would be a step toward training the first foreign pilots -- Dutch students -- by January 2013 and as many as 100 American student pilots a year by December 2016.

The Air Force eventually would need as many as 2,200 pilots to fly the 1,763 F-35s it plans to buy. The service has yet to determine when it intends to declare the fighter has reached initial combat capability.

In Gilmore’s memo, dated July 20, he wrote that “initiating training with an immature, non-combat-capable version of a fighter aircraft is unprecedented among prior analogous systems and is not now supported by the need for trained pilots.”

“I recommend strongly” that the test phase be delayed until the F-35 has “actual combat capability,” Gilmore wrote. Going ahead “poses risks of a serious mishap,” he said, and has nothing to do with combat capability because the F-35s at Eglin “have none.”

Telling Nothing

“Executing this training will tell us nothing about the difficulty and time required to actually train pilots to conduct air combat,” he wrote.

The testing dispute provides a window into tensions as the Pentagon’s civilian leaders seek to exert increased oversight of the plane.

Tougher oversight of the F-35 by Pentagon civilians began in February 2010 when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired the military’s program manager and withheld $614 million in fees that Lockheed could have received.

Since then, the Pentagon has given increased scrutiny to contract proposals, delayed the purchase since 2010 of more than 400 planned aircraft until after 2017, and withheld payments to Lockheed because of a flawed cost-estimating system.

‘Abort Rate’

Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, said in February that putting the F-35 into production years before its first flight test “was acquisition malpractice.” Kendall was criticizing the practice known as “concurrency,” when limited production occurs in parallel with development flight tests.

Gilmore said the Air Force is following the same flawed approach in the expanded training. “Now, the pressure is to make training concurrent with flight testing,” he said in the memo.

A comprehensive review of the jet’s airworthiness, each aborted flight and deficiencies all show the evaluation can be conducted safely, Donley wrote in his response.

Gilmore stands by his memo and doesn’t find Donley’s rationale for pressing ahead “compelling,” spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said in a Sept. 10 e-mail.

The disagreement turns partly on “abort rates” for F-35 missions that had to be cut short, an Air Force measure used to assess an aircraft’s progress in development.

Air aborts often occur because a problem went undetected on the ground or didn’t occur until after the jet was airborne and is severe enough in terms of flight safety that the mission must be ended.

‘Not Improving’

The abort rate for F-35 test flights at Eglin and at Edwards Air Force Base in California “has been flat, that is, not improving,” Gilmore said in his memo.

The Air Force reviewed each mission abort, Colonel Dawn Dunlop, Donley’s special adviser on F-35 issues, said in a telephone interview.

“We’ve had many discussions with Dr. Gilmore’s staff,” she said. “We agree on the data. The only disagreement is in whether or not the risk is understood, is sufficiently mitigated and that there is smart plan to move forward. The Air Force thinks the answer is yes.”

Gilmore said the trend was also unchanged in discovering so-called Category 1 deficiencies, those that may cause death, injury or severe occupational illness and loss or damage to a weapon system.

As of July 9, 67 of the Category 1 deficiencies related to the F-35’s airframe, propulsion systems and support systems remained unresolved, according to Gilmore. “Twenty-eight are relevant to the intended” flight training at Eglin, he said.

Dunlop said in the interview that “every one of those was gone through line-by-line to see if there was sufficient mitigation in place.”

Donley and Gilmore “have different roles and different responsibilities and might come at this from different perspectives,” Dunlop said. “We have spent some time trying to reconcile those differences, but the Air Force feels confident in our assessment of the risk and the value of an independent evaluation at this point.”

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