Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II notched its 10,000th flight hour in September, and by the end of the month the combined Joint Strike Fighter fleet had flown 6,492 times for 10,077 hours. Illustrating the momentum that the program has built since operational production aircraft began training operations, more than half the total was amassed in the past 11 months. It had previously taken the program six years to reach the 5,000-hour milestone.
While system development and demonstration and operational test work continue at Edwards AFB, California, NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, and Nellis AFB, Nevada, training is in full swing with VMFA-121 at MCAS Yuma in Arizona and the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin AFB, Florida. On October 1 the latest squadron began operating the JSF in the form of the U.S. Navy’s VFA-101 “Grim Reapers.” The squadron stood up at Eglin as the training unit for the F-35C carrier version of the JSF, which is scheduled to attain initial operating capability in 2019.
Another facility to have recently received its first JSF is the Ogden Air Logistics Center at Hill AFB, Utah. The ALC is the principal depot for support of the F-35A conventional takeoff variant, and the first aircraft to arrive for work is to be modified for the Block 2B OT&E program that begins in 2015. The Marine Corps opened its Cherry Point maintenance depot in July.
Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin and the Department of Defense have signed the contracts for the sixth and seventh low-rate initial production batches. LRIP 6 is valued at $4.4 billion and covers 23 F-35As, six F-35Bs and seven F-35Cs. The batch will include the first aircraft for Italy and Australia. LRIP 7, which includes Norway’s first aircraft, is valued at $3.4 billion, and covers 24 F-35As, seven F-35Bs and four F-35Cs. LRIP 7 represents the first time that a quoted unit cost for a JSF airframe has fallen below the $100 million mark, with an F-35A priced at $98 million. However, this price does not include the F135 engine, which is procured under a separate contract with Pratt & Whitney.
Most of these aircraft are already in the build process. This week Lockheed Martin and the Royal Australian Air Force celebrated the first aircraft for the service, AU-1, entering the mate process, the fuselage having been delivered from Northrop Grumman on September 23. Delivery is scheduled for next summer.