In Depth

The Men And Women Making Aviation History

April 11, 2018

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 have worked to complete the most comprehensive, complex and rigorous developmental flight test program in aviation history.

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 an operational pilot could possibly experience. Together these employees make up the Integrated Test Force (ITF) and they have one mission: to provide transformational capabilities to the operational F-35 fleet, enabling the men and women in uniform to execute their mission and come home safe.

From flight sciences to mission systems testing, the critical work of the F-35 test teams clears the way for capabilities to be delivered to training and operational F-35 fleets.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at an F-35 flight test: 

Inside the Mission Control Room

It was mid-morning on the western shore of Maryland, the aroma 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 an F-35C aircraft. 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 diligently took notes as they 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 verifying 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.

Mission Success

Since 2008, the F-35 ITF, based at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., have completed more than 65,000 test points and 9,200 test flights all to verify the F-35’s design, durability, software, sensors, weapons capability and performance for all three F-35 variants. They complete these challenging missions to gain situational awareness, collect data and to validate predictions.

“The F-35 test team pushes the aircraft to its limits; taking the aircraft to the edge of the envelope,” said Chauncey McIntosh, Director and Deputy F-35 Development. “With each test, we demonstrate 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 men and women in uniform to go on a mission and have full confidence that the jet is going to do what we said it is going to do.”

Recently, the F-35 Joint Program Office and Lockheed Martin announced the completion of F-35 flight testing as part of the System Development and Demonstration (SDD) phase of the program.

“The F-35 flight test program represents the most comprehensive, complex and rigorous developmental flight test program in aviation history,” said J.D. McFarlan, vice president of F-35 Flight Test for Lockheed Martin. “The joint government and industry team demonstrated exceptional collaboration and expertise, and the results have given the men and women who fly the F-35 great confidence in its transformational capability.”

Flight testing is a key component of the F-35 program’s SDD phase, which will formally complete following the Department of Defense-led Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) program. While SDD required flight testing is now complete, F-35 flight testing will continue to support capability improvements planned in support of the Follow on Modernization phase of the program.