HomeNewsArticle Display

THE NIGHTSHIFT - F-35 pilots working in dark to certify aircraft

The F-35 Integrated Test Force is completing a series of night flights, testing the ability to fly the jet safely in instrument meteorological conditions where the pilot has no external visibility references. The ITF, which has the lead on all F-35 mission systems testing, is responsible for five of the six night flights. (Courtesy Photo by Tom Reynolds/Lockheed Martin)

The F-35 Integrated Test Force is completing a series of night flights, testing the ability to fly the jet safely in instrument meteorological conditions where the pilot has no external visibility references. The ITF, which has the lead on all F-35 mission systems testing, is responsible for five of the six night flights. (Courtesy Photo by Tom Reynolds/Lockheed Martin)

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AFNS) -- The F-35 Integrated Test Force is wrapping up a series of night flights, which are testing the aircraft's capability when flying in instrument meteorological conditions.

It is a necessary step in delivering a core competency to the warfighter -- the ability to fly the jet safely when there are no external visibility references for the pilot, according to Lt. Col. Peter Vitt, F-35 ITF director of operations.

"This will increase the combat capability eventually," Vitt said. "But, in the interim, it will increase the training capacity. The capability to fly at night and in the weather is one of the core competencies that must be delivered to the warfighter. This is about safety, specification compliance and predicting operational utility. It's our job to find out how well the system works, how well our pilots interact with the displays and how the navigational system works."

The ITF, which has the lead on all F-35 mission systems testing, is responsible for five night flights, with Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., conducting the sixth.

For safety purposes and to ensure decision-quality data is collected, the ITF used a build-up approach to conduct the night flights. Pilots began with flying in visual meteorological conditions, familiarizing themselves with the F-35's mission systems.

Simulator flights, which occurred in February, also helped pilots prepare for the missions.

"The simulator does not exactly replicate actual flight conditions, so we flew to make sure the F-35 provides the displays, communications and other systems you need to safely fly at night or in weather when you're lacking the view of the outside world," said Maj. Eric Schultz, F-35 test pilot.

When the ITF completes the night flights, a variety of capabilities will have been tested including ground operations and the pilot's ability to maneuver the aircraft without becoming disoriented. The test team also will evaluate the navigation systems, data from the instrument landing system and how well the radios work.

Just as important is the pilot's assessment, evaluating whether or not they are getting the necessary information and can adequately use it to make informed decisions.

"We evaluated ground operations and takeoff, followed by flying to a desired location with no external references," Schultz said. "The pilot performed a series of maneuvers to make sure climbs, turns and descents can be performed with precision without getting disoriented."

Conducting instrument meteorological conditions testing proved to be somewhat of a challenge and required some ingenuity to ensure pilots had no external visual references, while avoiding weather conditions the aircraft is not yet cleared to fly in.

"There are certain weather conditions we haven't tested yet, so we can't fly there yet," Vitt said. "We had to find a way to fly instrument conditions without flying in certain kinds of weather. The creative solution the team came up with was to fly over the water and remote areas over land where there isn't cultural lighting to provide a horizon for the pilot."

While still in the early development phase, the Integrated Test Force has used the night flights as an opportunity to identify areas of improvement for the mission systems to better serve the warfighter, Vitt said. As the ITF successfully wraps up the night flights, the team's input will ultimately result in a safer, more capable weapon system.