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.

    • David

      the Typhoon Naval variant is still theoretical, as it it’s AESA radar, which will probably never get funded.

    • Riceball

      The only problem with your idea is that we’re still well away from fielding UCAVs and I’m not entirely convinced that more Super Hornets is the way to go until UCAV technology is matured enough for real use. I think maybe after the F-35 is fielded we can start looking into UCAV tech but we’re still a long ways away right now and I don’t think that simply throwing money at it would be right approach.

    • Snafuperman

      Hmm, really? See the UCAVs doing a lot of air to air do we??? And when has the USAF ever suggested it was going to buy a UCAV since the original program was killed?

      • blight_

        UCAVs will have more luck firing missiles on targets and executing dogfight subroutines than they will discriminating between friends, foes, mosques and schools on the ground.

    • Mike

      Interesting theory but quite hollow.the USAF uses the heck out of the b-2 of which there are very few and not replaceable. And cost a huge amount of money to build use and maintain and modify. If the USAF has these in inventory they will certainly be used

  • 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.

      • Curt

        OK, before quoting from the DoD slide that shows Main langing Gear to Tailhook distances of various aircraft, lets review math. 11ft (not the same number on the infamous DoD main langing gear to tailhook slide but may be measuring something else) plus 10ft is at least 21ft. Can we agree to that. OK
        From the DoD slide with MLG to Tailhook length.
        F-35C: 7.1ft
        TA-4J: 9.4ft Would you agree that 2.3ft is less than 10ft? Would you agree that a A-4 operated off carriers?
        T-45: 14.6ft Would you also agree that 7.6ft is less than 10ft and a T-45 can operate off carriers?
        T-2C: 15.7ft And 8.6 is also less than 10?
        And whiile the chart doesn’t list the F-9F, F-11F, F-8, or A-7, all of them have MLG to Tailhook distances that fall in that range. Why, because like all single engine aircraft, they have similiar geometry limited by the powerplant, And coincidently, all have shaper pointed tailhooks unlike the first design they (LM) tried which was basically a replay of the F-18.
        So yes, mindless drivel that is easily disproven.

        .

      • Curt

        While they don’t appear on the DoD slide, if you look at the lines drawings,
        F8U is about 11 ft
        A7 is about 10ft
        F8F appears to be a little longer than the F8U while the F11F is longer due to the extreme aft position on the aircraft. In any event, no where near 20ft (the plane is not even 50ft long).

      • Curt

        And if you want some other examples, look at the F4D Skyray, The Super Etendard, and the Sea Venom. All of them are carrier aircraft, all of them have MLG to hook distances similiar to the A7/F8U.

  • 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

    • blight_

      Well, between Lockheed and Boeing Lockmart’s -35B looked good enough that we gave them -A and -C to boot. In the fighter biz, it’s Lockheed and Boeing…when did Northrop last submit a fighter? The Black Widow?

      • Michael

        Didn’t Northrop submit the F-14?

        • blight_

          That would be Grumman, and that was before the ATF program.

          • tiger

            A updated A-6 & F-14 would have been better than the Flying Leatherman tool project.

    • Tiger

      We could actually talk to people & find solutions to disputes that do not require high explosives. That would be even cheaper………

    • krypton

      Yes, Northrup submitted the F-23, and people still say we should have gone with it instead of the coughing comet.

      2,225 F-35’s would only cost about 434 billion dollars (current cost: subject to go up by 10 million dollars a week) , so we better have a jet with a free M16 and helmet included. Along with that, if the stupid things don’t work (still a very open question), we won’t have anything else to replace them (there is no free fallback plan in military procurement). BTW, several of the Non-US countries that signed up for F-35’s are discussing cancellation even as we speak. That, in conjunction with the cost of all those carriers and subs and nonfunctional smaller ships, and the next generation of non-bulletproof personnel carriers and jamming M-4Zs and the stuff the Marines need because the Army and the Navy won’t provide them, should finally force the answer to the question, “Do we really need a military?”

      And we’ll just give Texas to Lockheed-Martin, George Bush included.

      Anyone got the Mandarin self-study course?

  • 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. .

    • JSFMIKE

      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.

  • JSFMIKE

    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.

      BTW

      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.