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An exclusive look at the future of the F-35 programme with Lockheed Martin

In association with Lockheed Martin

Two former pilots shared their views on the F-35 programme at the exclusive roundtable (Credit: Will Amlot)
Two former pilots shared their views on the F-35 programme at the exclusive roundtable (Credit: Will Amlot)

In May, Professional Engineering brought together IMechE members from the aerospace industry for a fascinating roundtable in association with Lockheed Martin.

The topic for discussion was the F-35 – a fifth-generation jet being deployed all over the world.

Answering questions were two bona fide fighter pilots. Kelvin Truss, Lockheed Martin UK’s Head of Strategic Engagement (Air), spent 27 years in the RAF, operating as a Tornado pilot and strategic planner, and spent nine years in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Adam Clink was a Harrier pilot in the Royal Navy for 26 years before joining Lockheed Martin UK as Head of Carrier Enabled Power Projection.  

They began by steering us through an update on the F-35, which is in demand because of a change away from supporting ground troops and back towards the need to combat ever more capable air and surface threats. 

The F-35’s stealth capabilities enable it to operate in a much wider range of situations than legacy aircraft. It forms the fifth generation of fighter jets, combining manoeuvrability with a low radar profile, and a range of connectivity tools that improve a pilot’s situational awareness. Unlike previous jets, such as the Tornado or the F-16, where different sensors displayed on different screens and it was up to the pilot to figure what that meant, “the F-35 will take all the data coming into the aircraft, fuse them together, and display one panoramic picture to the pilot,” Clink said.

Instead of an array of switches and knobs, it has a 14-inch touchscreen panel that the pilot can set up however they like. The software is regularly updated – akin to an app update on a smartphone – as part of Lockheed Martin’s commitment to have “no jet left behind”.

Truss highlighted the importance of the F-35 to the UK, which has plans to grow its fleet of STOVL F-35B jets from the current 17 to 138 over time. A key part of that is cutting costs, with a target of $80m for the F-35A variant, and support costs of $25,000 per flying hour. Building the F-35 also contributes significantly to British industry. “If you just think about the engineering expertise that went into the Rolls-Royce lift fan, and then carries forward into production as well, I think it’s a testament to the country,” said Truss. Every time any nation – whether it’s the United States, Belgium or Israel – buys an F-35, 15 percent of the value of each of the 3000+ aircraft planned will be built in the UK. 

Key questions: our attendees had questions on everything from range to drones

What's the range of the F-35?

Dr Ken Hart, University of Hertfordshire

“The range is dependent on the variant you buy,” said Clink. “The B variant that the UK has, has a combat radius of 450 nautical miles. Of course, the B variant carries a lift fan – and in the A and the C variant, that is replaced by a fuel tank which gives you greater range. One of the significant missions as the programme was being developed was the ability to take off, go to supersonic, achieve that range, and come back and make a vertical landing. So that’s the sort of capability that the F-35B brings.”

What’s the approach to cost cutting in the supply chain?

Alasdair Pettigrew, CEO, Tricorn Solutions

“Those of you who have looked at the F-35 will have come across ALIS, the Autonomic Logistics Information System,” said Clink. “Getting ALIS right is the key to bringing sustainment cost down, and smoothing the process of supporting aircraft worldwide.” Truss added that “Lockheed Martin have made it clear that action is needed throughout the support base and supply chain to achieve cost reduction goals while improving mission readiness”.

With what you know about technology at the moment, do you see there being a sixth generation of manned fighter aircraft?

Andy Pugh, Consultant Services Engineer, TPGroup

“Yes, I would think so, although some people are less sure of this. I think optionally manned, we’re going to see more of that,” said Truss. “But the notion of sixth gen aircraft can be a bit misleading. It was quite an obvious physical change from fourth to fifth gen, but I think the change from fifth to sixth might not be that visibly obvious. Significant capability enhancement is more likely to be as a result of networks, data and information superiority.”

High degrees of automation have led to problems for the pilot’s situational awareness, particularly when you’ve got integrated systems. How are you dealing with that?

Martin Soltau, Senior Business Manager, Frazer-Nash Consultancy

“There’s been a remarkable step change in terms of pure piloting skill that is now done by the aircraft, on behalf of the pilot,” said Clink. But, as Truss adds: “there’s still a requirement to make sure that pilots develop their airmanship,” and capacity to deal with unexpected issues. “Because we’ve embarked on a generation of training pilots with a minimum amount of time, and maximising simulation over real flying, we are developing a generation of pilots that just operate differently to the way I might have done,” he said.

Do you see more effort going into the airframe, or into advancing the systems and the ability to deploy in a networked environment?

Ashley Bryant, Managing & Technical Director, VTOL Technologies

“I think certainly the progress from now will be made in software and system development,” said Clink. “Because it’s built almost from the inside out, around that low observable outer mould line, actually reconfiguring and changing that will potentially have a detrimental impact. So I think we’ll preserve the life and shape of the aircraft, but modify and upgrade it through new sensors, new software, new networking.”

Running costs are trending towards a legacy aircraft. How have you achieved that this early in the programme?

Roy Allan, Roancoach Consulting

“I think this is largely driven by the US Department of Defence setting clear life cycle cost and reliability targets”, said Truss. “It’s still a competitive market out there and Lockheed will need to continue to demonstrate that its new capabilities are also very affordable. The pressure is on all involved in the F-35 enterprise to build supply chain capacity, reduce supply chain costs and improve part availability, and Lockheed Martin is taking aggressive action to that end, ensuring the F-35 is the most capable, reliable, sustainable and best value aircraft for decades to come.”


Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
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