As a prelude to the official IOT&E (initial operational test and evaluation) for the U.S. Navy’s Lockheed Martin F-35C, the service has undertaken a pre-IOT&E trial called Operational Test-I (OT-I). A deployment of six F-35Cs joined Carrier Air Wing Seven (CVW-7) aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln for the type’s first operations as part of a regular air wing.
Lincoln is fresh out of a four-year RCOH (refueling and complex overhaul) and had embarked CVW-7 to conduct routine cyclic operations as part of a work-up for both ship and the full air wing. During OT-I, one of the wing’s Super Hornet squadrons returned to shore to make room for the F-35Cs so that they could take part in day-to-day carrier operations, the type having only previously operated at sea under test conditions.
The primary aim of OT-I was to assess how the F-35C interacted with the air wing and vessel to identify areas of potential concern and explore the individual characteristics of the F-35 as it is maneuvered around a busy deck. Operating alongside CVW-7’s remaining F/A-18 Super Hornets, E-2 Hawkeyes, and C-2 Greyhounds also gave the Navy a chance to see what the future air wing composition will look like.
Providing the aircraft for the OT-I deployment was the fleet replenishment squadron VFA-125 “Rough Raiders” and VFA-147 “Argonauts,” both from NAS Lemoore, California. VFA-147 is slated to become the first front-line F-35C unit, with an IOC (initial operational capability) scheduled for February 2019 and a first deployment aboard the USS Carl Vinson slated for 2021.
Formal IOT&E is expected to be conducted this fall, with Lincoln being used as it received the necessary modifications for F-35 operations during its RCOH, thus become the first carrier able to host the aircraft operationally. For IOC to be declared, the ability to operate and support a full squadron of 10 aircraft is required. At the same time, the F-35C must demonstrate that it meets operational requirements with its current Block 3F software load.
One F-35C bug that has yet to be fixed is the “green glow” phenomenon in the helmet-mounted LED display that first surfaced in 2012. This glow makes seeing the carrier’s lights difficult, leading to a Navy-imposed restriction that only pilots with experience of more than 50 recoveries can operate in darkness. The problem is especially critical during carrier operations, where pilots can encounter the darkest flying conditions when flying far away from urban light pollution on moonless nights.
Attempts to eradicate the problem with software have not been successful. However, the Navy is introducing an OLED (organic light emitting diode) modification that permits the display to be fully off when it's not required, eliminating the source of the glow. The OLED helmet display is expected to be fielded in early 2019.
Meanwhile, despite the temporary block on deliveries of F-35As to the Turkish air force that the U.S. government implemented earlier in the month, and despite erroneous reports that Turkish pilot training had been suspended, on August 28 the country’s first pilot to fly the F-35 took to the skies at Luke AFB, Arizona. Turkish ground technicians are also receiving training on maintenance and servicing. The initial pair of F-35As that was handed over to the Turkish air force in June was delivered to Luke AFB for training. Under pre-embargo plans, the third and fourth aircraft were also to be retained in the United States.