Pentagon Tester: F-35 is Too Risky to Start Flight Training

So, the Pentagon’s top weapons tester, J. Michael Gilmore is urging the Air Force to delay the start of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter pilot training by up to ten months in order for the program to accrue more flight hours and therefore reduce the risk of dangerous in-flight emergencies. His memo comes just as the Air Force had been hoping to get clearance to start flying the six F-35A training jets that are at the JSF schoolhouse at Eglin Air Force Base, Fl.

Gilmore argued, in an Oct. 21 memo to Frank Kendall in his acting role as the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, that starting training flights with the plane would pilots and civilians at risk because it doesn’t have enough flight hours behind it.  Historically, jets need 2,000 to 5,000 flight-hours before the number of flight “aborts” due to emergencies gets down to acceptable levels — 1,000 aborts per every 100,000 flight hours.

Now, you can say that the jet is unlike any ever flown or tested before so one can’t accurately predict how many incidents the plane will have — this argument was frequently made in response to projections claiming that the F-35’s operating costs will greatly exceed those of legacy jets like the Navy’s F/A-18s.

However, the F-35A currently has about 1,000 flight hours under its belt and as of August (when it had about 800 hours), its abort rate was 3,000  per 100,000 flight hours, according to Gilmore’s note. Furthermore, “the historical model predicted one air abort during the [July and August, 2011] maturity flights; four air aborts occurred,” states the memo.

Gilmore’s memo basically says that the lack of flight time combined with the fact that pilots aren’t yet good enough at processing the plane’s warnings of poetntial problems could be a disaster in the making. He recommends that the service wait ten months before beginning training. This delay would give the Pentagon time to gain another 1,000 hours or so of flight testing and implement a number of relatively minor safety modifications to the jet  (read about them in the report after the jump).

If the military can’t bear to wait ten months, Gilmore suggests that the service move the six F-35A training jets from Eglin to Edwards AFB in California and start flight training there. He argues that since the California base is the main F-35A test site,  it can offer way more support from F-35-maker Lockheed Martin. Oh yeah, and Edwards is “in a sparsely populated area”; meaning the six jets’ “flight operation could begin to demonstrate lower abort rates and less [problem discovery], with substantially less risk to the pilots (and civilians) involved.”

The F-35’s would move back to Florida once the flight hours go higher and it can be proven that the risk of in-flight emergencies is lower.

Yeah, moving the planes, students and their logistical support to Edwards would cost a bunch of cash, especially considering that pilots would need to commute between California and Eglin, where the F-35 simulators are located, acknowledges Gilmore.  Still, that cost outweighs the risk of F-35 crashes, states Gilmore.

So far, Kendall has punted to the Air Force, asking the service to weigh in on Gilmore’s findings. We’ll see what the boys in blue say.

The Air Force badly wants to get the six F-35As — some of which have been sitting on the ground at Eglin since July — into the air so that JSF instructor pilots can get ready to start training new students on the jets ASAP. Furthermore, the Marines’ F-35B short take-off and vertical landing variant of the jet is due to arrive at Eglin in a few months — and that version of the jet has had a lot more development trouble than the A-model. Again, you can bet officials want to get the training program started quickly to develop institutional inertia that could protect against budget cuts.

Remember, DoD officials are looking at ALL major weapons programs as potential places to cut money in their effort to save hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey even told lawmakers this month that the Pentagon may not be able to afford all three variants of the F-35.  Just yesterday, the Pentagon announced that it was reducing the latest buy of F-35s from 35 jets to 30 jets in order to pay for cost overruns that sprang up due to development problems. Needless to say, the program isn’t out of the woods.

Still, I’d bet that the Air Force and Navy versions of the jet remain relatively safe since they’re both doing relatively well in development compared to the Bravo. Furthermore, the Air Force has no other option for building a 21st Century fighter force by the time it’s F-15s and F-16s age out later this decade. The Navy’s version of the plane is also set to be flown by the Marines and the UK; meaning that it could be a substitute for the F-35B as the Marine’s sea-borne tactical fighter, and that it is being purchased in significant enough numbers to help keep costs down compared to the B.

While the B has been making steady progress over the last year, its critics can still point to its developmental troubles and ask if the ability to land a stealth fighter on an amphibious assault carrier or short runway close to the battlefield is worth the cost of such a jet.


Report via POGO.

  • sdog

    sounds like they have to make the best of the situation. The f35 is far too far along to be canceled at this point. I say wait the 10 months, the publicity from a crash of one of these planes would be catastrophic.

  • blight

    I wonder why our JSF training is in Elgin, but Plant 42 is in Palmdale, and main testing in Edwards AFB.

  • Robbie

    Spell check your articles please DTech.

    “of poetntial problems could be a disaster in ”

  • Yep

    What? Another F35 delay? Couldn’t be true…

  • CorporationsSuck

    Paid by Lockheed probably.

  • drball

    Do not they have another set of training equipment in NAWS China Lake…..

  • Lance

    Or we can update the F-15 and F-16 to make them current for another 10+ years to save money for now.

    • Black Owl

      I think trying to give the Air Force common sense now is a lost cause. The F-15SE and the F-16 Block 60 are very capable replacements for the F-35. They are both cheaper (F-16 Block 60 = $80 million) and (F-15SE > $100 million). However I don’t think the F-16 Block 60 can match the Super Hornet in terms of cost vs. capabilities. The F-15SE is a different matter, though. It looks to be very capable so its manufacturing infrastructure is still around too so it would still be cheaper to produce in large numbers than the F-35.

      • crackedlenses

        Yeah, and then we’ll have to magically be able to produce something to match and surpass the J-20 and similar planes when they come out in a decade; sorry, but we are doomed to fight with fewer numbers and greater tech, unless you want to start drafting again….

  • SMSgt Mac

    Part 1. This post is a test of the reader’s numeracy, and is pretty weak even for a POGO leak. If anyone reads into the document anything more than a civil servant doing due diligence in covering his you-know-what - they fail the test miserably. There is no magic expected number of aborts in any given flight hour period, only a range of possibilities based upon the probabilities. The “1,000 aborts per every 100,000 flight hours” over a timeframe as short as 100 flight hours observed for a thousand programs (trials) would show that most of the time there would be NO aborts with 1 abort being the next most common, with up to 6 aborts within the realm of possibility. That’s the problem with applying stats for very high numbers of operational hours to smaller segments.

    • blight

      I’ve always been interested in the risk analysis that goes into this kind of stuff.

      That said, JSF would be an interesting diagnostic experience with a more electronic aircraft. It’s possible it may change how we approach reliability and PM, just as the post-ODB vehicle differs from the pre-ODB one.

  • SMSgt Mac

    Part 2.Now factor in the likelihood that abort rates can be higher or lower depending upon the risk aversion built into program ground rules and mission briefs, or the risk perception of test conductors or pilots. Then allow for the fact that we can now see more things going wrong real time with modern data collection and monitoring, stuff that used to be found only AFTER the mission, and it is easy to see that one should expect more aborts for newer programs than in the past. The over reliance on legacy experience in this document is palpable. What is more important are the trends and the understanding of the root causes of the aborts.

  • Sgt.Pray

    The name should be junky strike fighter costs over 300 million a plan it is another F-22 over priced and useless never been proven in combat just in war game simulations. They should just build more F/A 18EG Modals they do way more then the F-35 plus you need 2 F-35 to do the job of one F/A 18. You can build 4 F/A 18 for the price of one F-35. So sad that are government does not look at the big picture ya it might have better stealth capabilities but is it really worth the cost. I do not think so.

  • blight

    Reading the obscure phrases tucked away in paragraphs:

    ” This is also consistent with the substantially diminished commonality of the three JSF variants relative to initial expectations”


  • jessie medina Jr

    The JSF is a Joke. After 10 year of development and testing we are still waiting for the famous JSF. It’s going to be another Harrier nightmare. They didn’t call the Harrrier the widow maker for nothing. Don’t re-live it again with the JSF. Learn from your pass
    experiences, don’t tried and re-invent the wheel again.The F/A-18 A-D and now the
    Super hornet E/F is a great aircraft that Boeing Builds. Why don’t WE stay with something that is NOT broken.

  • Musson1

    The Aerospace Industry is broken. They can’t build a new fighter (F-35) or a new airliner (787).

  • Paul Peterson

    I am not allowed access to classified material. Why is a FOUO document available in the web ? FOUO means For official use only, do anybody out here have an official use for this document ? TAKE IT DOWN NOW !

  • crazy
  • itfunk

    Lockheed will be pressing for testing to go ahead - what are a few pilots lives compared to Lockheed’s PR needs after all.

  • Gregory Savage

    And you’re an expert how?

  • roland

    Well never know what’s needed to be fix until it is tested. Begin the the flight training. I believe Lockheed have the reputation and can fix whats needed to be done if necessary.


    Just as the US Air Force does “not” fly the latest version of the F-16 fighter jet, maybe the US military should opt out of purchasing the F-35 program and allow other countries to buy the fighter jet first; there are a number of countries like Israel, UAE, Saudi Arabia who want the F-35 as Lockheed should sell to them first and maybe in a few years under a different Presidential Administration, things will change or possibly there will be an competition for a 6th Gen fighter jet.