The military could be putting pilots’ lives at risk in its hurry to begin training with the next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
That’s not some outrageous claim by poorly informed peaceniks or some muckraking journalist: It’s the official position of the Pentagon’s top weapons tester, Dr. Michael Gilmore. The F-35’s developers — the Air Force, the Navy and Lockheed Martin — disagree with Gilmore’s assessment. But the controversy underscores continuing problems with an aircraft that’s supposed to replace almost all of America’s current tactical warplanes, at a cost of more than $400 billion.
In a memo dated Oct. 21, Gilmore, the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, asked Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall to consider delaying the commencement of F-35 training by 10 months, in order to give engineers and testers more time to work out the $100-million-apiece JSF’s kinks. “Initiation of training in an immature aircraft risks the occurrence of a serious mishap,” Gilmore wrote in the memo, which was leaked to the Washington, D.C.-based Project on Government Oversight.
Initial “familiarization” flights for future JSF pilots were set to begin this fall, using a handful of so-called “Lot 2″ F-35As completed by Lockheed this summer. The Lot 2 planes have been parked at Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base — future home of the Pentagon’s JSF “schoolhouse” — for several months, awaiting a certificate from the Air Force that will allow them to begin flying with student pilots aboard.