Flying the F-35B

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Lockheed Martin’s online magazine, Code One, has a very interesting article on flying the F-35B. For those in Rio Linda, the B-model is the STOVL variant of the F-35, designed for use by the United States Marine Corps.

Flying the F-35B isn’t at all like flying the Harrier from the previous generation. As a matter of fact the flight control system in STOVL mode is completely different from the Harrier:

Capt. Brian Miller, who came from the F/A-18D, explained the transition in simple terms: “In a Hornet, we had a center stick. In the F-35, we have a sidestick. I don’t even think about the difference now. Once I landed and took off in the simulator a couple of times, I was comfortable the stick location.”

Learning the F-35B’s short takeoff/vertical landing procedures:

“You would think former Harrier pilots would have an advantage with the F-35B STOVL modes since they have experienced those modes before,” continued Miller. “They may be more versed in the engineering dynamics and physics of STOVL operations. But in terms of cockpit controls, STOVL mode in the F-35 is almost completely backwards from the Harrier. So F-18 pilots may have an advantage since they don’t have to unlearn STOVL habits.”

…and from another pilot Capt. Jonathan Thompson, a former Harrier pilot now with the VFMA-121: “The F-35B is designed to be very intuitive in hover mode,” he explained. “To a pilot coming from a conventional fighter, hover mode is intuitive. Push down on the stick and the aircraft goes down. Pull back on the stick and the aircraft goes up.” Hover mode control in a Harrier, however, is a little different. Up and down movement is controlled with the throttle. Left and right movement is controlled with the stick.

“Whereas I used to pull back on the stick to point the thrust down to land the Harrier in hover mode, I push forward on the stick to land the F-35 in hover mode,” Thompson continued. “That said, the F-35B hover technique is just as easy to learn and just as easy to become second nature. Former AV-8 pilots just have to be more deliberate until STOVL mode operations become more routine. Short takeoffs and vertical landings are some of skills and habit patterns we develop in the simulator.”

The fact that transitioning from the F/A-18 to the F-35B may be easier than going from the AV-8B to the F-35 struck me as counterintuitive. As with most of aviation, transitioning between different types involves unlearning potentially bad or unsafe habits.

Go read the rest.

The Future of Army Aviation?

We’ve mentioned the Joint Multi-Role helicopter a couple times in the past, primarily in the sense that we aren’t getting a warm fuzzy feeling. If the program was strictly to develop new technologies that could be used in a series of new designs for separate roles, that would be one thing. But in spite of protestations to the contrary, it’s shaping up more and more that the Technology  Demonstrator (TD) will be leveraged into a one size fits all program that will try to make one helo do more than one job. That’s the same approach that has so badly compromised the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

The program is still moving along, with the Army’s Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC) recently awarding contracts to four companies to move ahead with the demonstrators. One such concept is here:

Now, at first glance, I don’t see anything that is outside the realm of aerodynamic possibility.  But I do note that the design is proffered by AVX Aircraft, a brand new company that hasn’t built anything before. I’m not even sure they really have the physical plant to build a TD. Plus, it’s just ugly.

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I’ll admit I was a bit surprised when the AMRDEC Public Affairs Officer reached out to me (especially during the shutdown. Civilian PAO’s are essential for a non-tactical command?).  The PAO kindly forwarded some public information on the Future Vertical Lift initiative.*

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*to be fair, JMR and FVL are technically two separate programs, but I have a crystal ball that tells me we’re only going to get one airframe out of this.

Silent Hornet?

The F/A-18 family has been a pretty successful program for Naval Aviation, from it’s origins as an inexpensive lightweight fighter, to a replacement for legacy F-4 Phantom and A-7 Corsair II aircraft.  It’s evolution into the much larger F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EF-18G Growler were surprisingly smooth programs.

But the program isn’t without its faults.  For instance, the major weakness of the family has always been seen as its relatively low “fuel fraction,” that is, the percentage of the aircrafts weight devoted to fuel.  A low fuel fraction leads to relatively short range.  External tanks and aerial refueling mitigate this to some extent, but not without penalties in performance, payload, cost, and time.

The Super Hornets also have one other minor issue. A fair amount of attention was paid to reducing the radar cross section of the jet, without having to go full stealth. But when weapon separation tests were conducted on the prototype, it turned out that some loads were not leaving cleanly. The modified wing of the Super Hornet was doing things to airflow that no one had foreseen. Rather than have to redesign the entire wing, the fix turned out to be toeing out the external wing pylons by 4 degrees.  Of course, this imposes a healthy bit of drag, both for the pylons themselves, and for any stores on them. It also pretty much shot to hell all the attention to reducing the radar cross section of the jet.

So, with the pylons off, the Super Hornet is pretty sprightly, and has fair low observable characteristics. But it doesn’t have any range, or any weapons.

Boeing is trying to work around that issue.  In recent years, other “teen” series fighters, the F-15 and F-16, have used “conformal fuel tanks” fitted to the outside of the airframe to increase “internal” fuel, rather than having to carry drop tanks on pylons. With care, the design can have minimal impact on airframe drag or radar cross section. That goes a long ways toward tacking the range issue. But what about weapons? Boeing is also designing a semi-stealthy pod for the centerline that resembles a drop tank, but is instead a weapons pod.

Jason pointed out this article at The DEW Line showing a mock-up of the configuration that Boeing and the Navy will flight test this summer.

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You can see the Conformal Fuel Tanks over the wing root, and the weapons pod on the centerline. Close observation will also show a sensor window under the nose, as opposed to the usual method of mounting a pod on one of the engine bays. Less drag, more stealth.

The concept is to give the Super Hornet fleet some limited ability for “first day of the war” stealth to penetrate enemy air space. My major concern is that the weapons pod right now is only configured (so far as we can tell) to carry four AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles, giving it a fair air-to-air capability. What it really needs is a capability to carry weapons to attack enemy surface to air defense systems.  Some way of carrying anti-radiation missiles, or at a minimum, GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs is going to be critical. I suppose designing an alternative pod shouldn’t be too great an engineering challenge.

Boeing is smart enough to see that its rival Lockheed Martin is struggling to make the F-35C a reality, and is trying to offer a low cost, low risk alternative that will keep the carrier air wing viable through the first half of the 21st Century.

KMax

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Kaman  Helicopters has a long history of taking an… unconventional approach to solving the challenges of rotary winged flight. A few years ago, they looked at the issue of helicopters with external loads, and decided that what was needed was something smaller than the enormous CH-54 Skycrane. But to maximize the external load, as little helicopter as possible would be used. And rather than the traditional crew of two, it would only use one pilot. Little helicopter, big load.

Taking the idea even further, and teaming up with LockMart, they decided no pilot was an even better option. Pretty soon, they’d paired up with the Marines to test this unmanned helicopter for delivering supplies to remote outposts in Afghanistan. Flying in supplies by helo reduces the number of ground convoys needed, reducing their vulnerability to IEDs. And by using an unmanned helicopter, that reduces the risk to aircrews, and frees up conventional helicopters for troop movements or evac missions or other uses.

I’m not entirely sold that this is an especially cost effective program, but it is pretty interesting to watch.

F-35 Overruns Top $1 Billion… with a “B”

Almost a “dog bites man” <yawn> story at this point. From Business Week:

Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT)’s first 63 F-35 fighter jets are exceeding their combined target cost by $1 billion, showing the Pentagon’s costliest program lacks a reliable design and efficient manufacturing, according to U.S. congressional auditors.

The Pentagon is absorbing $672 million and Lockheed Martin the remaining $328 million in added costs for the aircraft in the first four production contracts, the Government Accountability Office said in prepared testimony today for a House Armed Services Committee hearing on tactical aviation. The committee is conducting the first oversight hearing on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for the fiscal 2013 budget.

“The long-stated intent that the Joint Strike Fighter would deliver an affordable, highly common fifth-generation aircraft that could be acquired in large numbers could be in question,” Michael Sullivan, the GAO’s director of acquisition management, said in the statement.

The testimony previews the GAO’s annual report on the Defense Department’s most costly weapons program, which is to be published next month. The GAO’s findings and the Pentagon’s annual test report, issued in January, are the two primary sources that lawmakers and the public have for assessing the military’s and Lockheed Martin claims for the F-35.

The reports are also closely watched by the program’s eight international partners, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Italy, Australia and Norway.

(Read more)

The GAO’s quote there is spot on. If this fifth-generation fighter is too expensive, nobody will care if it meets mission. Partner nations will drop out by the end of the year at this rate.

What’s worse is we’ve seen this movie before. And we know all about the crying at the end.

F-35 Lightning II
F-35 Lightning II (Photo credit: createordie)