The F-35B Is Vertically Challenged

 - June 16, 2014, 8:00 AM
This F-35B performed the first public flying display of the Lockheed Martin Lightning II at MCAS Yuma, AZ last March. But unlike the AV-8B that it will replace (inset), the stealth jet did not perform a vertical takeoff or landing. (Photos: Chris Pocock)

The F-35B V/STOL version of the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter will not perform vertical landings during its international debut in the UK next month. The maneuver cannot be performed without risk of damage to runway surfaces, unless they have been constructed with high-temperature-resistant concrete. The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) confirmed last week that three specially built vertical landing pads will be provided at RAF Marham, the planned UK base for the F-35B, at a cost of more than $12 million.

When the F-35B made its public flying debut during an airshow at MCAS Yuma, Ariz., on March 15, spectators (including this AIN editor) were told that a vertical landing would not be made “because of a crosswind.” However, just 15 minutes earlier, a flying demonstration by a Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier II included a successful vertical landing. Yuma is the home of VMFA-121, the squadron that is training pilots for the first operational F-35 squadron. The Marine Corps is scheduled to declare initial operating capability (IOC) on the F-35B in the middle of next year.

An official of the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT), where the F-35B will debut on July 11, told AIN that the concrete runway at RAF Fairford is covered with an inch-thick layer of permeable asphalt, to aid in runoff of rainfall. This layer would be at risk from the F-35B’s exhaust during a vertical landing or takeoff, he continued. The F-35B would still be able to demonstrate short landings and takeoffs, he noted.

The MoD said last week that the runways at the UK’s dwindling number of operational air bases are of asphaltic concrete construction. This type of surface could also prove susceptible to damage by the heat generated by F-35B vertical operations, it is believed. However, defense procurement minister Philip Dunne said that the F-35B will be able to land vertically on the UK’s new Queen Elizabeth II aircraft carrier, which is slated to start sea trials in 2017. “Environmental considerations, including heat generation and dissipation, have been thoroughly evaluated, including assessments from trials (of a USMC F-35B) on the USS Wasp,” Dunne told the UK parliament.

But the vertical landing restrictions that are emerging cast doubt on an important part of the operational utility of the F-35B, at least with respect to its service with the USMC. The Marines’ concept of operations emphasizes the use of austere forward operating locations (FOLs). Lockheed Martin has said that the difference between the heat generated by an F-35B vertical landing, compared to an AV-8B, is insufficient to affect operations. Heavy aluminum matting was laid at NAS Patuxent River, Md., where the U.S. has conducted most of the operational testing of the F-35B.

Meanwhile, the UK MoD continues to lead studies of a shipborne rolling vertical landing (SRVL) technique for the F-35B, as a means to ensure that the aircraft can “bring back” to the carrier a full unexpended weapons load.

The UK has ordered four F-35Bs to date. A contract for 14 more has been negotiated, but the signature has been delayed until the Farnborough Air Show next month for publicity reasons. The UK is planning to acquire a total of 48 F-35s over the next 10 years. The MoD’s target of eventually buying 138 F-35s is certain to be dropped in the UK’s next defense review in 2015.