You may remember a previous post on here about a pretty big milestone for the Joint Strike Fighter program. An F-35B, piloted by a Marine, performed the first vertical landing aboard a USN amphibious assault ship, the USS Wasp (LHD 1). The landing and subsequent deployment aboard the Gator was a culmination of years of planning, design and training, and although it took three weeks to achieve what was thought would take two, it was a success story as Lockheed Martin and the government were able to achieve several critical test points. This is that historic landing.
There are three variants of the Joint Strike Fighter, a conventional take-off and landing (CTOL or F-35A) variant; a short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL or F-35B) variant; and a carrier variant (CV or F-35C). The deployment aboard the Wasp was the STOVL variant designated the F-35B, which uses a drive shaft driven lift fan to achieve short take-off and vertical landings as seen here.
The USS Wasp is an amphibious assault ship, which normally patrols the world’s hot spots with an embarked Marine Expeditionary Unit (MUE) aboard. The MEU includes a beefed up infantry battalion and a reinforced squadron made up of attack jets, assault helicopters and the V-22 Osprey transports. For this cruise, two F-35Bs, known as BF-2 and BF-4, would have the ship to itself.
When the USS Wasp pulled away from its pier at the Norfolk Naval Station last October, she carried a contingent of engineers, technicians and pilots set on a first time endeavor: to conduct shipboard, flight test operations for the F-35B, which is the short take-off, vertical landing (STOVL) variant Joint Strike Fighter that had been plagued by engineering challenges and technical problems. Much of the maintenance and servicing work happened below decks in the hangar bay. This hangar bay is relatively empty compared to normal underway operations. On a typical deployment, this hangar deck would be packed with wall to wall aircraft.
Already behind schedule, the F-35B is needed by the Marine Corps to replace the aging AV-8B Harrier. The F-35B’s designers have been plagued with technical issues from the beginning , and the entire STOVL program was put on probation by the Department of Defense because of the issues and the delays they caused. The ship trials aboard the Wasp were seen by many as the last chance for Lockheed Martin to make the STOVL a success. Three months after the ship trials ended, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lifted the probation on the STOVL.
Although manned by an experienced Navy crew, the shipboards tests also required the presence of several engineers and technicians to maintain and service the jet while underway. When the Navy required Lockheed employees to pass a physical before allowing them aboard the Wasp, to the surprise of many, several of the contractors failed their physicals. Substitute technicians were quickly found and informed to pack their bags. They passed their physicals.
(All photos courtesy of Lockheed Martin)