The Navy has been training with and testing high-tech adjustments to the stealthy carrier-launched F-35C’s Helmet Mounted Display to better enable targeting, sensor data viewing and pilot awareness of flight information such as airspeed, heading and altitude, service and industry developers explained.
Development and operational pilot training of the aircraft is underway after four F-35C Lightning II aircraft arrived last month at Naval Air Station Lemoore in Southern Calif.
The F-35C aircraft joined the recently reactivated Strike Fighter Squadron 125, known as the "Rough Raiders," a Navy statement said.
“They are going to be the initial training squadron for our fleet for pilots flying the F-35C the future. This is the Navy’s first West Coast squadron. They will be flying the F-35C out of Naval Air Station Lemoore for years to come,” said Steve Fiebing, deputy public affairs officer for Naval Air Forces.
Much of the ongoing technology development of the F-35C is taking place with the Naval Air Systems Command, Patuxent River, MD. Technology development, testing and training for combat are all deeply intertwined when it comes to the F-35C program, officials said.
Sensors in the pilot’s Generation “3 HMD” have been improved with new firmware to better enable pilots to target enemies and perform missions at night, Navy developers explained.
The new display is engineered to add more image fidelity in lower ranges of brightness and low-light conditions; this allows for better targeting and carrier-landing ability in the darkest conditions when there is no moonlight, Navy officials explained.
At the same time, ongoing training pilots on the subsystems to prepare for operational missions also includes ongoing evaluations of the aircraft’s next-generation technology. Pilots will be training with the aircraft’s 3 HMD, among other systems, at Air Station Lemoore.
All the information pilots need– is projected on the helmet’s visor, rather than on a traditional Heads-up Display, a Lockheed statement said. The helmet also provides pilots night vision through the use of an integrated camera, the statement continued.
The 3 HMD also allows for efficient viewing of sensor feeds from cameras positioned around the aircraft. The F-35’s Distributed Aperture System streams real-time imagery from six infrared cameras mounted around the aircraft to the helmet, allowing pilots to essentially “look through” the airframe.
The F-35C is a single seat, multi-role fighter aircraft designed to eventually replace the F/A-18 legacy Hornet.
The Navy's future aircraft carrier-based air wings will consist of a mix of F-35C, F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, EA-18G Growlers electronic attack aircraft, E-2D Hawkeye battle management and control aircraft, MH-60R/S helicopters and Carrier Onboard Delivery logistics aircraft such as the Navy Osprey.
Both the training and the continued technology development also include efforts to refine a precision-landing technology called Joint Precision Approach & Landing Systems, or JPALs.
JPALS, slated to be operational by 2019, works with the GPS satellite navigation system to provide accurate, reliable and high-integrity guidance for fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, Navy statements said.
Also, Navy information described JPALS as a system featuring anti-jam protection to ensure mission continuity in hostile environments. “JPALS is a differential GPS that will provide an adverse weather precision approach and landing capability,” a Navy statement said.
The emergence of a first-of-its kind carrier-launched stealth fighter is intended to give the Navy more combat attack flexibility and attack sophisticated enemy air defenses or fortified targets from a sea-based carrier. Such an ability can allow a maneuvering carrier to hold targets at risk from closer proximity if land-bases are far from the combat vicinity.
The new stealth Joint Strike Fighter is slated to become operational by 2018, when it will join the carrier air wing and fly alongside the F/A-18 Super Hornet, E2D Hawkeye surveillance planes and other aircraft. Over the next five years, the Navy plans to acquire more than 50 of the new fighters, Navy officials told Scout Warrior.
As it prepares for F-35C deployment, the Navy anticipates that the new aircraft will deploy to any one of a number of pressing hot-spots.
Prior to this event, developmental testing of the aircraft has been focused on advancing what’s called carrier integration and carrier qualification – effort to seamlessly integrate the new aircraft into the carrier platform and carrier air wing, service officials said.
Stealthy F-35C carrier aircraft, having a lower radar signature, are expected to deliver advanced attack and air-to-air and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, able to perform a wider range of operations without being detected by an enemy.
The aircraft is part of a broader Navy strategy to be well equipped in the event that it needs to engage in massive, major-power war against a near-peer adversary such as Russia and China known to have advanced air-defenses and air-to-air platforms.
The F-35C - the Navy's and Marine Corps' carrier-suitable variant (CV) – is designed to combined unprecedented at-sea stealth with fighter speed and agility, fused targeting, cutting-edge avionics, advanced jamming, network-enabled operations and advanced sustainment.
Being engineered for a carrier, the F-35C's 51-foot wingspan is larger than the Air Force's F-35A and Marine Corps' F-35B short take-off-and-landing variants. The fighter is configured to carry 19,000 pounds of fuel and 18,000 pounds of weapons. An empty F-35C weighs approximately 3,500 pounds. It can fire two AIM-120 air-to-air missiles and two 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions. The F-35C can reach speeds up to Mach 1.6 and travel more than 1,200 nautical miles.
In a document described as the "Naval Aviation Vision," the F-35C is also described as being engineered with reinforced landing gear and durable coatings to allow the F-35C to withstand harsh shipboard conditions while delivering a lethal combination of fighter capabilities to the fleet.
Previous testing of the aircraft involved catapulting the stealth fighter off the aircraft carrier runway deck with a much lighter load of weapons; the full complement of armaments for the F-35C is designed to maximize its potential mission envelope and allow it to drop laser and GPS-guided precision Joint Direct Attack Munitions, use air-to-air weapons in the event that the aircraft needs to dogfight or destroy enemy drones and fire a 25mm gun for, among other things, the prospect of close-air support or surface attacks against enemy ships.
During prior testing, the F-35C took off with one GBU-31, two AIM-120s and four GBU-12s along with its 25mm gun mounted in a pod on the aircraft.
The F-35C is also able to fire the AIM-9X along with other weapons; in the future it will have an ability to drop a Small Diameter Bomb II - a high-tech weapon now in development able to track and destroy moving targets from great distances using a tri-mode seeker. The SDB II uses millimeter wave, laser and infrared guidance technology.
Landing a Stealth Fighter on a Carrier at Sea
With a broad wingspan, reinforced landing gear, ruggedized structures and durable coatings, the F-35C will stand up to harsh shipboard conditions while avionics equip the pilot with real-time, spherical access to battlespace information and commanders at sea, in the air and on the ground with an instantaneous, high-fidelity single picture view of ongoing operations.
The F-35C is engineered with a new technology called Delta Flight Path which helps pilot land on a carrier deck more easily. Test pilots and engineers credited the F-35C's Delta Flight Path technology with significantly reducing pilot workload during the approach to the carrier, increasing safety margins during carrier approaches and reducing touchdown dispersion, Navy pilots explain.
Carrier landing is never easy as pilots must account for the wind-speed, atmospheric conditions and speed of the ship. Pilots follow a yellow light on the flight deck of the ship called the Freshnel Lens to help the trajectory of the approach, called their glide slope, officials said.
The Fresnel Lens includes a vertical row of yellow lights between two horizontal rows of green lights. Using a series of lights and mirrors, a pilot's approach is reflected by the position of the yellow light in relation to the green lights above and below, displaying whether the aircraft is on the right "center line" or "glide slope," Navy pilots have said.
If a pilot is on glide slope, he will see a centered amber ball in between the horizontal green lights; If he goes high on glide slope, he will see the ball rise above the green lights. If he goes below glide slope, he will see the ball fall below the green lights.
Also, in order to properly align for an approach to the flight deck -- about three-quarters of a mile away, pilots make a sharp, descending 180-degree turn to slow the aircraft and begin descending from about 600 feet, Take-off is also intense; Aircraft are able to reach speeds up to 160 knots in about 2.5 seconds as a result of being thrust forward by the steam catapult.
The steam catapult generates 520 PSI (pounds per square inch) of pressure pushing pistons forward. The pistons push cylinders connected to a shuttle attached to a launch bar, which pulls the aircraft forward, Navy officials explained.
Upon landing, the aircraft catches an arresting cable four to six inches above the deck of the carrier; hydraulic fluid controls the pace of deceleration for the aircraft, Navy pilots explained.
A hook lowers from the back end of the F-35C aircraft, designed to catch the cable and slow down the plane. In order to maintain its stealth configuration, the aircraft’s hook is internal to the airframe, Navy developers said.
On all the legacy systems, the tail hook sits up underneath the engine externally. Upon landing, three doors open up and allow the tail hook to fall down, Navy pilots said.
The aircraft also needs to be able to withstand what’s called a “free flight,” a situation where the pilot receives a late wave off to keep flying after the hook on the airplane has already connected with the wire, pilots added.