By Doug Cameron
The naval version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is due to start flight tests on an aircraft carrier at sea in October after Lockheed Martin Corp. said it had fixed the tailhook used to arrest the plane's landing on a ship's deck.
Lockheed was forced to redesign the tailhook, and said Wednesday that the naval version of the advanced jet—known as the F-35C—was "on schedule and progressing well for sea trials" after a test plane successfully landed 36 times with the new version during trials on land.
The problems with the tailhook and a pricey new pilot helmet become symbolic of broader issues with the F-35 program as the complexity of trying to develop three different models simultaneously with a high level of shared parts led to a cascade of technical problems and cost overruns.
Lockheed and its partners on the F-35 program are looking to remove risks from the F-35C in the face an intense lobbying battle with Boeing Co., which wants the Navy to buy more of its F/A-18 planes, the mainstay of the U.S. Navy's existing carrier-based aircraft fleet.
The Pentagon plans to order 340 F-35Cs, 240 for the Navy and another 80 for the Marine Corps. The Navy aims to have its first squadron of jets ready to fly by early 2019, though a Pentagon watchdog last month cast doubt on whether the short-takeoff and landing version of the jet—known as the F-35B—would be ready for the Marines as planned by mid-2015. The U.S. Air Force is due to reach so-called "initial operational capability" with its F-35s in 2016.
Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon's director of Operational Test and Evaluation, said in a report to Congress that it could take an additional 13 months to finish testing software on the Marines' jets. The Pentagon said it remains confident the F-35B will be ready on time.
The Pentagon on Wednesday cautiously welcomed progress on the carrier version of the jet after the testing of the new tailhook, which has a different shape to catch the arresting wires used to slow and halt the plane on landing.
""We're not declaring victory. We have a lot more testing to do and more data to collect, but the initial results have been promising," said a spokesman for the F-35 Joint Program Office in an emailed statement.
The landing system faces another three to four months of land testing before being cleared for sea trials on the USS Nimitz, currently scheduled for October.
The Pentagon in October dropped plans for BAE Systems PLC to continue developing an alternative version of the pilot helmet after problems developed that included issues with its effectiveness at night and a latency snag that left pilots with delayed readings.
The original helmet became a trouble spot for Lockheed and its main partners in the project, Rockwell Collins Inc. COL +1.42% and Elbit Systems Ltd. ESLT +1.56% , but the Pentagon said the problems had been resolved, while the competition from BAE had also driven down its cost.
Cost overruns, delays and technical glitches have dogged the F-35 program and made it a target for bipartisan attacks within Congress, but its funding has remained relatively unscathed. The U.S. still plans to buy more than 2,400 of the jets, and though some purchases have been pushed to the right, efforts to continue the ramp in production to reduce costs have been aided by recent wins from overseas governments.http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304181204579365011426340906