In Depth

Preparing the Warfighter for the Frontlines, One Flight Test at a Time

July 31, 2017

As the world’s most advanced multi-role fighter, there is no denying that the F-35 is an extraordinary aircraft. But what most people don’t see are the hundreds of Lockheed Martin employees who prepare the F-35 for the modern air combat battlespace each and every day. They are the engineers in the control room who test the aircraft’s critical systems and analyze data. They are the trusted voices who let F-35 test pilots know when they are reaching the edge of the envelope. They are the maintainers who repair, inspect or modify the aircraft to ensure safe and correct functioning during flight. They are the test pilots who push the envelope and fly the F-35 through every situation a fleet pilot could possibly experience. Together these employees make up the Integrated Test Force (ITF) and they have one mission: to deliver on our promise to provide unrivaled capability to the warfighter.

Everyday Lockheed Martin ITF teams conduct flight-test missions and with each successful test, the F-35 program is one step closer to a strong finish in the System Development and Demonstration (SDD) phase.

An F-35A flies the first external GBU-31, 2,000 pound Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) in a loads/flutter test flight at Edwards AFB, California.

Inside the Mission Control Room

It was mid-morning on the eastern shore of Maryland, the roar of the Chesapeake Bay filled the air as the sun positioned itself in the June sky. Inside a windowless control room, a team of ITF engineers had one goal for that day: to ensure both the aircraft and weapon operate flawlessly in the defined conditions for the test mission.

Although windows were a rarity, the control room offered flight conductor, James Shepherd, the best view of the flight test. The live-feed digital displays allowed him to monitor cockpit safety and all test parameters with ease. Serving as the interface between the control room and the cockpit, James diligently worked with the test pilot, Maj. Eric Northam, aboard F-35C aircraft CF-2. With one eye on the live-feed display and the other on the test cards, James began to meticulously direct the test pilot through a number of test conditions. As the test pilot executed each maneuver, the engineers on the ground quietly studied the stream of data displayed on their computer monitors.

Pushing the Envelope

“Test, Control is ready for maneuver.”

The voice from the F-35 cockpit is calm and confident as it comes over the intercom in the mission control room. The test pilot’s signal indicated that he was ready to get into position for his next maneuver.

Control room ready?” asked James to the room full of engineers who were carefully monitoring their screens, tracking the progress of the flight.

“Ready,” each engineer replied succinctly.

“Copy. Test, clear to maneuver,” replied James, who was the only one in the room in consistent direct communication with the cockpit.

As the Major began to initiate the radical maneuver, a sudden silence fell over the control room. In one eloquent motion, the test pilot rolled inverted to push to the negative G target before launching the AIM-9X missile. After stabilizing the jet, he successfully launched the air-to-air missile proving that the aircraft, and weapon, can operate at the edges of the flight envelope.

“Recover,” a content James transmitted over the intercom indicating mission success.

The team's flawless execution, poised body language and laser focus could be summed up in one phrase: performance excellence.

Lockheed Martin ITF teams complete unique missions that the operational fleet pilots rarely encounter. They complete these challenging missions to gain situational awareness, collect data and to validate predictions. The various test missions allow the team to provide the maximum capability of the F-35 to the fleet to get them where they need to be for training and operational use.

“We push the aircraft to its limits; we take it to the edge of the envelope,” said Chauncey McIntosh, Director and Deputy F-35 Development. “With the inverted AIM-9X live fire shot, we demonstrated to our customers that we can meet not only the normal spec compliance, but that operationally, this aircraft can push the bounds and do whatever the warfighter needs it do – even during inverted operation,” he added. “We want the warfighter to go on a mission and have full confidence that the jet is going to do what we said it is going to do.”

The program’s SDD phase will close out required F-35 flight testing this year and field the advanced 3F software to the operational F-35 fleet so that Follow-On Modernization (FOM) can begin in 2018-2019 with Block 4 software development.

The People Behind the Flight Test

For each test, the ITF team works together to accomplish certain success criteria. While the various tests do differ, they share the same fundamental preparation procedures, with the flight conductor leading the way. Before each flight, the conductor collaborates with both internal and external partners to plan the mission, drawing up test points that will take the aircraft to the exact parameters necessary to complete the mission. The conductor also creates the flight cards, which detail the parameters of each test and serve as a guide to the entire flight crew.

“In order to execute a successful flight test, everyone on the team has to be all in. Our employee's diverse expertise and perspectives are pertinent to meeting the needs of the warfighter,” said James. “I love being in the control room with my teammates, after all of the planning and coordinating seeing a successful flight test plan come into full fruition is amazing.”