JSF’s Trouble Stopping on the Boat

On January 18, 1911, Eugene Ely landed his Curtiss pusher airplane aboard the USS Pennsylvania anchored in San Francisco Bay — the first successful shipboard landing of an aircraft, and the first ever using a tailhook system designed and built by circus performer and aviator Hugh Robinson.

After the first trap Ely told a reporter: “It was easy enough. I think the trick could be successfully turned nine times out of ten.”

In the case of the Joint Strike Fighter’s initial aircraft carrier developmental testing, Ely was off a bit — by six, to be exact.  The first 10 times the F-35 tried to perform an arrested landing — with experienced test pilots at the controls — the airplane only caught a wire three times.

You don’t need to be a tailhooker to figure out that that percentage won’t work out in the fleet.  Jets come back from missions usually with a handful of looks at the deck at most, and if a pilot puts his craft in the wires, he should have confidence he’s going to stop.

So what was going on?

The main contributing factor to this high incidence of in-the-wires bolters was that the JSF only has 11 feet between the main mounts and the hook point.  That’s more than 10 feet less than any other tailhook airplane the Navy has ever flown from carriers.  Follow-on video analysis showed that the relatively short wheel-to-hook distance didn’t give the arresting wire time to bounce away from the flight deck after the wheels hit it at touchdown, and that caused the tailhook — with a standard-shaped hook point — to drag across the wires instead of catching them.

Arresting wires don’t lay directly on the flight deck; they’re elevated by curved pieces of metal known as “shives.”  So the engineers’ first thought was to raise the shives so that the hook might have a better chance of catching.  But the Navy wasn’t keen on tackling a ship modification when the system worked fine for every other airplane, so the engineers looked at changing the JSF hook point instead.

The result is a tailhook with a sharper point that sources tell us appears to have solved the problem.

And so we have another data point around why we do flight testing and why it takes so long for airplanes to reach the fleet . . . besides the convoluted DoD procurement process.

And for all of the computer modelling wizardry and 500-pound brains that populate the military’s systems commands, you never know how something is going to work until you actually try it.

  • Tim UK

    A disaster of procurement , the only advantage this plane will have over the Typhoon when in service is its supposed 360 degree sensor suite. Lets see if they get that working !

    The US navy should pull and buy super hornets and spen the rest of the cash on their ucav’s.

    The fact is the USAF will never once the JSF is fully operational risk them when they will have by then UCAV’s to do the first few days dirty work in any full scale conflict. So the actual benefit of these planes over the current crop will be near zero by the time they enter service. Mark my words UCAV’s in first followed by B52’s using stand off weapons and thousands of decoys, there is zero justification for the JSF.

  • Hilarious

    “executing dogfight programs”… hahahaha

    • Davidz

      Just following the target like ordinary missile and opening fire when close enough would work pretty well.

      • blight_

        Autonomous dogfighting beats being tethered by satellite and a five second lagtime to controllers in Creech.

        Might be less lag if between ground control or a CVN and said UCAV, but…

  • Lance

    Never cared for the B or C. Be better to build a new navy attack plane leave the JSF for the USAF to replace the F-16.

  • Chris

    Just what we need, another, “Tailhook Scandal”.

  • Bart

    In ww2 the corsair had huge problems with carrier landings, so badly so that the u.s. flew them only from land strips for a good portion of their use in the pacific. In time the issues were sorted out and corsairs were used well into the Korean conflict. This tailhook thing is not a big deal.

    • Atomic Walrus

      Specifically, the US Navy had problems with Corsair carrier landings. The British seemed to do fine, even though their carriers were typically smaller than the American ships. It wasn’t a tailhook issue, though – more of a problem with poor visibility due to the long nose of the Corsair.

  • Mitch S.

    A sharper hook? dang Navy tinkerers ruining everything!
    L-M had a solution for The Navy, simply buy the new opto sensor computer controlled linear magnetic drive tailhook/boom assembly for a mere $87mil/ea.
    Sure they’ll need to be overhauled after every 10 landings with lots of expensive, exclusive to L-M parts but it’s better than having to park the planes on land every time the CBG goes to sea…

  • Ken

    The Brits taught us how to fly Corsairs off carriers. If I remember correctly they made their approach at an angle. MMCS(SS)(SW) USN Ret.

    • Anlushac11

      You are correct. The first problem was the heavily framed canopy which blocked the view and was easily enough fixed with a clear bubble canopy.
      The next problem was the long nose blocked the view of the traditional approach. The other problem was the Corsairs landing gear struts were too stiff which resulted in the aircraft bouncing back into the air and missing the hook. The strut was lengthened and the rate softened. The Brits flew a angled approach keeping the carrier just off the nose until the last second.

  • JJMurray

    This aircraft is just TOO expensive and will not perform like the miracle that it was sold as.

  • Curt

    “The main contributing factor to this high incidence of in-the-wires bolters was that the JSF only has 11 feet between the main mounts and the hook point. That’s more than 10 feet less than any other tailhook airplane the Navy has ever flown from carriers.”

    What mindless drivel. If you discount the F9F, F11F, A4, A7, F8, T45 and virtually every other single engine jet aircraft in the USN. In fact, the sharper tailhook design looks remarkably like an A4.

    • ward

      Every airplane you just listed had at least 20 feet, Curt. And thanks for the “mindless drivel” comment. Nice tone.

  • TonyC

    F-35C will be a challenge for young pilots to master, better to let the automated landing system do the work. If there are serious issue swith automated landing, the US Navy should reconsider their procurement of the F-35C and concentrate on perfecting the UCAV. The F-18E/F can do alot of the mundane missions anyway.
    The Air Force seems to be in love with UAV’s, there are no pilots to worry about.

    • 2Echo

      ” If there are serious issue swith automated landing, the US Navy should … concentrate on perfecting the UCAV.”
      Would that be the UCAV which will depend heavily on automated landing?

  • Hefe

    In my humble opinionIf we can get the numbers the USAF and the DOD is asking for it will be worth it because China and Russia won’t be able to field anything near 2,225 U.S. F-35’s + 1,000+ Allied F-35’s. If we can’t get those numbers then we should open up a new competition and let boeing, northrup grumman, and any other interested parties compete against each other for either a new 5th gen fighter, or a new strategy that uses drones.By having multiple companies compete it will ensure a low cost for whatever they come up with. Also let the companies field their new attack aircraft so that way they have to keep their prices low. Lockheed can afford to keep the price high because no one is competing with them

  • Hefe

    F-35 Pros: Advanced sensors that can scan other radar without being detected so it will have the first look in any fight I doubt the chinese or the russians will have anything as advanced.. Advanced jammer capable of jamming anything. It has the best integrated network so it will work well with squads in the air and on the ground. It is very manuevarable according to independent test pilots.F-35 Cons: Can be detected from the sides and the rear according to popular mechanics. The price keeps going up, our allys might not purchase it. It does not have a high ceiling which is very important in air to air combat. .


      RIGHT! Like PM has some insde track to the radar pole testing that was done. quite wrong there, PM.

  • Guest

    So why wasn’t a standard wheel-to-hook distance part of the initial work-spec?

    More to the point, was there a diviation from the work-spec in this regard?

  • Alexander Sanchez Jr

    Jeez, this plane is just one big screw up after another. I mean all the data we have on how other aircraft performance to build on and incorporate into the design of this increasing pain in the financial ass, and a simple, and vital piece of gear is designed wrong. With budget cuts due to take place in just 3 months, and with all the talk of getting control of the buget, this project needs to be dropped before anymore money is wasted. If we are serious about controlling the budget, this has to go. STOP PAYING THE CONTRACTOR!!! Tell them we have spent all we are going to for an aircraft that seems to have been design and built wrong from the get go. Have the company fix this aircraft from their own pocket, not the government’s. And when they can show a aircraft that can do all the things advertised of it, then we’ll start paying them again. but not before. and certainly not for fixing all the never-ending problems that crop up with this aircraft.

  • Alexander Sanchez Jr

    We need aircraft that work fine against every threat we have encountered so far, not promises of next generation capability in an aircraft that is just one big money “Black Hole”. We neither need nor can afford this piece of crap. I mean for all the talk of other countries developing this kind of aircraft, here we are, the most supposedly technologically advance aircraft industry in the world, and this aircraft has had every kind of design, hardware, & software problem you can imagine in an aircraft. Can you imagine what other, less experienced or advanced countries are going to go through. and I’m sure they really can’t afford the money we can in a project like this.


    Gosh I’m tired of all the BS from non engineer, non Naval Aviators, non JSF team members. They don’t know what they are talking about and unfortunately they say it too loudly. It really annoys those of us who flew navy jets, have an aero space degree, and worked on the JSF team.

    • dissapointed

      This aircraft will not survive shipboard life. The man hours per flight hour are horrendous. This plane will never survive stupid (as we all were at that age) 18 to 20 odd year old kids working on it. It might survive in the USAF (barely, like the F22)
      This plane is maybe 30 – 40 percent into its testing and it is already not doing well.
      You also realize the difficult parts of the flight tests haven’t even begun yet. Look down the road on your big Fancy flight test calender and tell me you think the off center traps, max sink rate/ max weight arrested landings, min speed catapults, high alpha turns, etc, etc, etc, are going to go swimmingly.

      Don’t Drink the KOOL-AID Mike. It tastes sweet but so does antifreeze.


      I worked on this program for 10 months. Prior to that I had 8 years of hands on flight test work and 13 years of flight test support. ALL on Naval Fighter/Attack aircraft. Prior to that 4 1/2 years military service. About 11 different air frames in all.
      I quit because the company was much more concerned about appearance than reality.

      F-35B IOC 2012 (take those banners down yet)

  • Edward

    I believe it was Stalin who said, “Quantity has a quality all its own.” I cannot see how the Navy budget will ever bring enough F-35’s into the fleet to be effective as a force.