USS WASP -- The Marine Corps and Navy are close to wrapping up 19 days of Sea Trials for the Corps’ F-35B short take-off-and-vertical-landing, or STOVL, variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, service officials said.
The trails, taking place aboard the USS WASP Amphibious Assault Ship about 30-miles off the coast of Maryland, are designed to assess the F-35B’s ability to take-off and land vertically at night, maneuver and operate in high crosswinds and headwinds, among other things.
“There’s no better way to determine how an aircraft is going to operate in the fleet than to take it to sea,” said Navy Capt. Erik Etz, director of test and evaluation, F-35 Naval variants. “We’ve been pushing the aircraft out to the edges of its operational envelope.”
The Marine Corps F-35B variant, slated to reach what’s called initial operating capability by 2015, is a stealth aircraft specially engineered to land vertically, meaning without a runway.
This ability to land vertically without a runway is designed to give the Navy and Marine Corps the ability to use the aircraft from a smaller amphibious platform such as the USS WASP – without needing the catapult or large runway of an aircraft carrier, Etz added.
The ongoing Sea Trials have resulted in at least 90 successful short take-offs and 92 vertical landings aboard the USS Wasp, said Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the Joint Strike Fighter’s Joint Program Office.
The JSF program developmental strategy is, in part, grounded upon a series of incremental software “drops” — each one adding new capability to the platform. In total, there are more than 10 billion individual lines of code for the system, broken down into increments and “blocks,” F-35 program office officials explained. The F-35B is currently testing with Block 2B, which enables the aircraft to provide basic close air support and fire an AMRAAM [Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile], JDAM [Joint Direct Attack Munition] or GBU 12 [laser-guided aerial bomb].
In addition, the aircraft has conducted test flights with a full internal weapons load, including a GBU or Guided Bomb Unit and an Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile, or AMRAAM.
As what’s called a fifth-generation stealth or low-observable fighter platform, the F-35 is engineered with a suite of next-generation technologies designed to provide the pilots with more capability and more information.
When it comes to STOVL landing technology, the F-35B is a generation beyond its Harrier Jet predecessor, also a Marine Corps plane designed for vertical landing.
“Harriers are all manual controls. With the F-35 we have computers. A ton of engineering goes into making it a low work load. The plane is literally sampling winds, sampling conditions and the parameters,” said Marine Corps Capt. Michael Kingen, an F-35 developmental test pilot.
The F-35 is also engineered to accomplish what’s referred to as “sensor fusion,” namely the technological ability to fuse relevant information from a variety of sources into one common operating picture for the pilot to view – such as digital maps, radar information and sensor information all combined into a single set of screens, said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Matthew Kelly, former F-35 test pilot.
For instance, the F-35’s Electro-Optical Target System, or EOTS, is an infra-red sensor able to assist pilots with air and ground targeting at increased standoff ranges while also performing laser designation, laser range-finding and other tasks.
In addition, the plane’s Distributed Aperture System, or DAS, is a series of six electro-optical sensors also able to give information to the pilot. The DAS includes precision tracking, fire control capabilities and the ability to warn the pilot of an approaching threat or missile.
“The ability of the aircraft to take in all that information, process it and then provide it to the pilot with the right information when he wants it in the right format – is really what makes this the fifth generation design for the next war and the war after that,” said Kelly.
The next Sea Trials for the F-35B are slated for sometime in 2016, DellaVedova said.
“F-35 is a growth platform and will remain so for the forseeable future,” he said.