Pentagon Tester: F-35 is Too Risky to Start Flight Training

So, the Pentagon's top weapons tester, J. Michael Gilmore is urging the Air Force to delay the start of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter pilot training by up to ten months in order for the program to accrue more flight hours and therefore reduce the risk of dangerous in-flight emergencies. His memo comes just as the Air Force had been hoping to get clearance to start flying the six F-35A training jets that are at the JSF schoolhouse at Eglin Air Force Base, Fl.

Gilmore argued, in an Oct. 21 memo to Frank Kendall in his acting role as the Pentagon's top weapons buyer, that starting training flights with the plane would pilots and civilians at risk because it doesn't have enough flight hours behind it.  Historically, jets need 2,000 to 5,000 flight-hours before the number of flight "aborts" due to emergencies gets down to acceptable levels -- 1,000 aborts per every 100,000 flight hours.

Now, you can say that the jet is unlike any ever flown or tested before so one can't accurately predict how many incidents the plane will have -- this argument was frequently made in response to projections claiming that the F-35's operating costs will greatly exceed those of legacy jets like the Navy's F/A-18s.

However, the F-35A currently has about 1,000 flight hours under its belt and as of August (when it had about 800 hours), its abort rate was 3,000  per 100,000 flight hours, according to Gilmore's note. Furthermore, "the historical model predicted one air abort during the [July and August, 2011] maturity flights; four air aborts occurred," states the memo.

Gilmore's memo basically says that the lack of flight time combined with the fact that pilots aren't yet good enough at processing the plane's warnings of poetntial problems could be a disaster in the making. He recommends that the service wait ten months before beginning training. This delay would give the Pentagon time to gain another 1,000 hours or so of flight testing and implement a number of relatively minor safety modifications to the jet  (read about them in the report after the jump).

If the military can't bear to wait ten months, Gilmore suggests that the service move the six F-35A training jets from Eglin to Edwards AFB in California and start flight training there. He argues that since the California base is the main F-35A test site,  it can offer way more support from F-35-maker Lockheed Martin. Oh yeah, and Edwards is "in a sparsely populated area"; meaning the six jets' "flight operation could begin to demonstrate lower abort rates and less [problem discovery], with substantially less risk to the pilots (and civilians) involved."

The F-35's would move back to Florida once the flight hours go higher and it can be proven that the risk of in-flight emergencies is lower.

Yeah, moving the planes, students and their logistical support to Edwards would cost a bunch of cash, especially considering that pilots would need to commute between California and Eglin, where the F-35 simulators are located, acknowledges Gilmore.  Still, that cost outweighs the risk of F-35 crashes, states Gilmore.

So far, Kendall has punted to the Air Force, asking the service to weigh in on Gilmore's findings. We'll see what the boys in blue say.

The Air Force badly wants to get the six F-35As -- some of which have been sitting on the ground at Eglin since July -- into the air so that JSF instructor pilots can get ready to start training new students on the jets ASAP. Furthermore, the Marines' F-35B short take-off and vertical landing variant of the jet is due to arrive at Eglin in a few months -- and that version of the jet has had a lot more development trouble than the A-model. Again, you can bet officials want to get the training program started quickly to develop institutional inertia that could protect against budget cuts.

Remember, DoD officials are looking at ALL major weapons programs as potential places to cut money in their effort to save hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey even told lawmakers this month that the Pentagon may not be able to afford all three variants of the F-35.  Just yesterday, the Pentagon announced that it was reducing the latest buy of F-35s from 35 jets to 30 jets in order to pay for cost overruns that sprang up due to development problems. Needless to say, the program isn't out of the woods.

Still, I'd bet that the Air Force and Navy versions of the jet remain relatively safe since they're both doing relatively well in development compared to the Bravo. Furthermore, the Air Force has no other option for building a 21st Century fighter force by the time it's F-15s and F-16s age out later this decade. The Navy's version of the plane is also set to be flown by the Marines and the UK; meaning that it could be a substitute for the F-35B as the Marine's sea-borne tactical fighter, and that it is being purchased in significant enough numbers to help keep costs down compared to the B.

While the B has been making steady progress over the last year, its critics can still point to its developmental troubles and ask if the ability to land a stealth fighter on an amphibious assault carrier or short runway close to the battlefield is worth the cost of such a jet.

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