Second test plane powers up, but first plane stays grounded

jsftestflightWork on the second F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter test aircraft has reached a key milestone, but the one test aircraft that last flew nearly six months ago is still grounded.

By BOB COX, Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Oct. 27 2007 - Lockheed Martin reported Friday that the electrical system of the second aircraft was turned on for the first time late Thursday, an important step in the lengthy process that is expected to lead to test flights by mid-2008.

The F-35 program, now estimated to cost U.S. taxpayers at least $299 billion, is at a sensitive stage. Lockheed and its partner contractors need to show steady progress to maintain political support and continued funding.

The second test aircraft being assembled in Lockheed's west Fort Worth factory is the first F-35B short-takeoff/vertical-landing (STOVL) plane like those designed for use by the Marine Corps, the British Royal Navy and Air Force, and the Italian armed forces.

With the electrical system operational, engineers and technicians can begin conducting the thousands of hours of ground tests required before the plane can be flown.

The plane is the first to be built to specifications coming out of a major and costly redesign effort launched in 2004 after officials overseeing the program realized that the airplane was going to be too heavy.

Lockheed officials had hoped to resume test flights of the first aircraft by the end of this month. The plane has been grounded since a hazardous electrical problem was discovered in early May.

Lockheed's chief financial officer, Bruce Tanner, told Wall Street analysts earlier this week that flight testing probably would not resume until next month.

Spokesman John Smith said Friday that "final preparations for flight testing" were under way and that the aircraft "will fly when it's ready."

Testing has been further delayed after Pratt & Whitney engineers discovered engine damage after ground tests in mid-September on an engine identical to that used in the F-35 test aircraft.

Smith said that a number of successful engine ground tests have been conducted since.

The electrical-system problem that caused the grounding has long since been addressed: The problem parts have been redesigned. Other components have also been replaced, and new software has been installed and checked out in ground tests.

The spate of technical problems and delays has pushed the F-35 program over budget. Lockheed has proposed cutting two test aircraft and about 1,500 planned test flights in later years to save money, saying it can accomplish all the needed tests with fewer planes and fewer flights.

Michael Sullivan, an analyst with the Government Accountability Office, said the track record of the F-35 program doesn't inspire confidence.

"We don't see any evidence that is a reasonable rationale that makes any sense," Sullivan said.