Navy says new F-35C stealth jet looks at home on USS Abraham Lincoln
By HUGH LESSIG | The Daily Press | Published: August 29, 2018
At first, the Navy’s new stealth fighter turned heads on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. As the days passed, its presence became routine.
That’s exactly what Navy leaders said they wanted to see.
An exercise now taking place aboard the Lincoln is offering a glimpse into the future of naval air power. For the first time, F-35C Lightnings are launching and landing with their older counterparts in a pace that mirrors how the ship would operate on deployment.
The Navy on Monday invited media onto the Lincoln to view how six F-35Cs flew missions as part of cyclic fight operations, where groups of aircraft take off and land in carefully planned sequences.
The F-35Cs flew alongside F/A-18 Super Hornets and other aircraft from Carrier Air Wing 7. Rear Adm. Dale E. Horan, director of Joint Strike Fighter Fleet Integration, said the new stealth fighter is blending in with its older but tested counterparts.
“For the first two days or so, everybody was like, wow, F-35s, F-35s,” he said. “And now it’s like, hey, they’re airplanes. They move around on the flight deck like a Navy airplane moves around on the flight deck. We’re seeing that (it) seems to look relatively normal.”
Once in the air, the stealth jets worked on tactics with the Super Hornets. Also in the mix were E2-D Hawkeyes, which offer advanced surveillance, and the EA-18G Growler, a specialized version of the Super Hornet that conducts electronic warfare.
The F-35 program — which includes an Air Force and Marine variant — has faced criticism for its cost and delays. A June government watchdog report noted the Defense Department is in “a rush to cross the finish line” that could affect reliability and maintainability in the years to come.
But when fully operational, the aircraft’s stealth capability allows it to operate in more hostile environments. It can detect targets from longer distances and manage data more efficiently.
On Monday, it joined with various Navy aircraft in the skies above the Lincoln as Mother Nature tossed in a few distant lightning bolts for effect.
For all the flying that took place, Horan said the biggest focus was on the flight deck — one of the more dangerous places to work — and seeing how the Lightning integrated with other aircraft.
“Each airplane has its own idiosyncrasies around the aircraft carrier, particularly towing it and moving it around,” he said. “Until you get an airplane out and mixed with other airplanes, you don’t necessarily grasp those differences. That’s what we’re doing out here now.”
The Navy expects to reach initial operating capability on the F-35 — when airplanes and crews are ready for combat — by February 2019. More testing and evaluation will take place before that deadline.
The Navy has already announced plans to deploy the F-35C for the first time aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in 2021.
Change of scenery
In May 2017, the Lincoln was redelivered to the fleet after undergoing a mid-life refueling and overhaul at Newport News Shipbuilding. It took more than four years.
Capt. Putnam H. Browne, the ship’s commanding officer, said his crew was happy to host the F-35Cs after a long time in the yard.
“This is our first time in six years doing cyclic flight operations, and the first time with our air wing,” he said.
Browne said Carrier Air Wing 7 has been conducting cyclic flight operations for about three weeks. Over a week ago, one Super Hornet squadron flew off the ship to accommodate the six F-35Cs.
As the ship’s captain, he doesn’t run the exercise.
“They tell us what they need, and we provide them with the open deck,” he said. “My job is to make sure they have steam catapults and arresting gear to meet their test objectives.”
From his seat on the bridge, the operation looks seamless.
“It’s been amazing to see how well we can keep the deck rolling,” he said, describing the F-35C landings as “spot on.”
Problems yes, but ‘dream’ to fly
The F-35Cs come from West Coast-based Strike Fighter Squadrons 125 and 147. Cmdr. Tommy F. Locke commands the 125. He few the F/A-18 earlier in his career. The advanced sensors and data processing offered by the F-35C “has really reduced the pilot workload for us.”
The June watchdog report from the Government Accountability Office noted that the Defense Department has made progress on the overall F-35 program. However, GAO said the department plans to resolve some problems after full-rate production, which could further increase costs and create affordability questions.
Horan said he believes any issues with the F-35C are solvable, and that was echoed by Locke, who called it “the newest and greatest.”
“It’s a dream to fly onboard and around the carrier,” he said.