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The F-35B prepares to get its feet wet


They're taking baby steps, but slowly and surely, engineers at Naval Air Station Pax River, Md. are getting the Marines' F-35B Lightning II ever closer to the first time it will operate in the venue for which it was designed: A U.S. Navy amphibious ship.  According to this week's announcement from Naval Air Systems Command, workers are figuring out how they'll chock and chain a Lightning II on a flight deck, and so far, so good.

[...] F-35 integrated test force personnel used weights to simulate shipboard padeyes during an evaluation of chain down procedures on F-35B test aircraft BF-1. The team observed no points of interference and identified ways to optimize aircraft jacking techniques. Padeyes are used on ships to secure equipment to the deck during various sea states.
For non-naval readers, these are little structures built into the flight deck that give sailors flexibility about where and how to park aircraft. When a fighter jet isn't flying, shooting off the bow or coming in for a landing -- or in the hangar bay getting fixed -- it's usually chained in place with the other jets in the squadron. Not as exciting as a dogfight, but figuring out how the Lightning II will work as part of a ship's pattern at sea, even just sitting parked, is an important part of eventually getting it out there.

Everything about flying the brand-new F-35B on decades-old ships is going to require this kind of careful thought. For example, naval aviation types worry that the jet blast from the engine during vertical landings could do a lot of damage to the flight deck, necessitating a lot of maintenance. The unhappy precedent for this was the MV-22 Osprey, which throws out so much heat it can warp the deck over the course of a deployment; some ships use jerry-rigged "hot plates," big metal pads, set under the Osprey's engines to protect the deck if the birds need to idle for a long time.

Planners also have wondered whether the B's jet blast will be so powerful it blows antennae off a ship's superstructure, or disrupts sensors or other equipment set up along the deck edge. Maybe, officials acknowledge, but this is why we're testing it, they say -- and why we're taking our time. When the F-35B makes its first test flights aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp later this year, the Navy and Marines will get some real-world lessons, possibly expensive ones, in how to best configure the big-deck gators to handle the new aircraft.

It's not as simple as just flying aboard in a new helicopter, but the Pentagon brass say when they've got all the kinks out, it'll be worth it -- Marine officials like to boast that the F-35B will double the number of U.S. capital ships, given that gators will be able to handle advanced jets very like the ones that fly off nuclear carriers.

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