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Pentagon report warns of F-35 visibility risks

Mar. 6, 2013 - 02:48PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 6, 2013 - 02:48PM  |  
An F-35A tests external weapons in May. Visibility issues were one of many challenges test pilots had, according to a report.
An F-35A tests external weapons in May. Visibility issues were one of many challenges test pilots had, according to a report. (Lockheed Martin)
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WASHINGTON Significant visibility issues could lead to dangerous flight conditions, according to test pilots who have flown the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

That is just one of several issues identified by the Pentagon's chief weapons tester in a February report, http://pogoarchives.org/straus/ote-info-memo-20130215.pdf">published online (PDF) today by the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight.

Other issues include flawed radar, ongoing challenges with the high-tech helmet required to fly the jet, and potential issues with the touch screen control interface.

The operational utility evaluation (OUE) itself was extremely scaled down from the type of testing that is normally done with such a program, to the point where the authors of the report conclude that "the results of the OUE should not be used to make decisions regarding the readiness of the JSF system to support training inexperienced pilots in an F-35A initial qualification course."

"Due to the immaturity of the aircraft, the workarounds required to support flight operations, and very limited mission systems capability little knowledge can be gained from the OUE applicable to F-35 sustainment under normal squadron training operations or to sustainment of combat capable aircraft in operational units," found the report.

"Additionally, the F-35 Joint Reliability and Maintainability Evaluation Team (JRMET) data for the F-35A fleet suggest that the program is not meeting reliability growth targets to meet operational requirements documents (ORD) requirements."

Inspectors offered up five major categories of training tasks that are normally included in the fighter transition syllabus for other jets. Of those five, only one category was accomplished fully; two others were accomplished partially, and two were not accomplished due to system immaturity.

Additionally, testers found eight "serious" risk areas that need to be dealt with in the jet. Those range from a lack of flight test hours increasing the risk of a Class A mishap to the potential failure of the ejection seat in use with low-rate initial production (LRIP) 2 and 3 production craft.

Other issues identified as high risk include the fact LRIP 2 and 3 planes do not have an automated sensor that automatically releases an ejected pilot from their harness and upon submersion in water, which could lead to drowned pilots; the lack of protection from lightning strikes; and ongoing issues with pilot-vehicle interface that if not corrected leaves the authors with "no confidence that the pilot can perform critical tasks safely."

"The F-35A air vehicle enabled the successful completion of the Block 1A syllabus for four student pilots during the period of the OUE, training them to safely take-off and fly in clear weather conditions, accomplish formation flight with another F-35 or F-16 aircraft, and land the aircraft but not train for combat," according to the report. "Only a very limited set of the full mission systems capability are working."

The training syllabus was limited by flight restrictions for the jet. The F-35 is currently prohibited from flying at night or during weather conditions such as rain. Overall, "In a mature fighter aircraft, the familiarization phase is followed by several combat-oriented phases, such as air combat, surface attack, and night tactical operations," according to the report. "The F-35A does not yet have the capability to train in these phases, nor any actual combat capability, because it is still early in system development."

Pilot Comments Less Than Stellar

The most attention-grabbing part of the report features comments from the pilots who flew the initial OUE training flights. Each student accomplished six flights and one taxi-only maneuver in a Block A-1 configured F-35A.

Pilots identified a number of issues, many of which stemmed from the immaturity of the aircraft.

All four pilots commented that there was poor visibility from the cockpit, which appears to be the result of design flaws.

One pilot said he had difficulty seeing other aircraft due to the location of the canopy bow, while others identified the lack of rear visibility as a major, potentially deadly, flaw.

"The head rest is too large and will impede aft visibility and survivability during surface and air engagements," commented one pilot quoted in the report. "Aft visibility will get the pilot gunned every time."

"The majority of responses cited poor visibility; the ejection seat headrest and the canopy bow were identified as causal factors. ‘High glare shield' and the HMD cable were also cited as sources of the problem," reads the report.

Most worrisome for JSF supporters is this conclusion: "Of these, only the HMD cable has the potential to be readily redesigned."

Another common complaint involved the failure of the radar system.

"The radar performance shortfalls ranged from the radar being completely inoperative on two sorties to failing to display targets on one sortie, inexplicably dropping targets on another sortie, and taking excessive time to develop a track on near co-speed targets on yet another sortie," according to the report.

All of the pilots had issues with the helmet-mounted display (HMD) at some point in their training flights. While acknowledging that the JSF program is working to further develop the helmet, the authors of the report say the pilot comments make it "clear that some of these issues have the potential to significantly hamper more advanced combat training and operational capability in the future if not rectified."

Not all complaints were unanimous. One pilot complained about the touch screen interface used to control the radios, saying it "is not readily accessible, requires more channelized attention, has no tactile feedback, and is error prone - particularly during demanding phases of flight or under turbulent flight conditions."

Other pilots did not publicly share any concerns they had with the touch screen, which the report says could be because it was not an issue raised in exit interviews.

Sustainability Questioned

Speaking at a Washington-area conference Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the head of the F-35 Joint Program Office, told an audience that his biggest concerns with the plane were not technological, but rather sustainment issues.

When talking affordability, the general called operations and sustainment (O&S) costs "the big gorilla." While he took issue with the $1 trillion sustainment figure that is often used, he said if O&S costs aren't reduced, the plane could "potentially be unaffordable in the future."

The OUE report also identified potential sustainment and maintenance concerns.

"In spite of the low demand on the aircraft in number and in capability, availability at times exceeded the demand by only a slim margin," found the report, an issue driven by long maintenance times.

The OUE team highlighted the issue of engine replacements as one potential trouble situation.

"An example where maintainability needs to improve is engine replacement. One unscheduled engine removal and replacement occurred during the OUE, which required 39 hours of elapsed maintenance time," according to the report.

"For the five unscheduled engine removal and replacements that have occurred in the F-35A fleet, the mean elapsed maintenance time for this task is 52 hours. The ORD threshold is for a maximum crew of four maintainers to remove and install the engine within 120 minutes."

Portable Maintenance Aids (PMAs), devices that are used for electronic forms management, also experienced difficulties. In addition to long load times, in some cases the PMAs would lead to errors that required outside technical assistance.

"In one instance, the PMA indicated an F-35A required a left tire change when it needed a right tire change. Maintainers could not fix the error themselves; the change required an FSR and extended the aircraft turn time," found the report.

In his comments Tuesday, Bogdan said he hoped to inject competition into sustainment and maintenance components of the JSF program.

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