F-35 test team working hard to bring new weapons to fight

VX-23 test pilot Lt. Richard Valenta executes loads testing maneuver development in an F-35C Lightning II over NAS Patuxent River’s restricted airspace in Southern Maryland.

As the Navy prepares for its first F-35C Lightning II deployment and the Marine Corps continues to expand its F-35B footprint on landing helicopter assault/landing helicopter dock-class ships, testers at VX-23 and the Patuxent River F-35 Integrated Test Force (ITF) are working hard to add additional weapons to their arsenal.

Currently, the F-35 is cleared to carry the GBU-31, GBU-32 and GBU-49 GPS guided air-to-surface bombs. Testing for a strike force of the future, ITF is evaluating the GBU-38 and GBU-54 500-pound class guided weapons for safe carriage and release from both the F-35B and F-35C variants. The capability will provide Lightning II pilots the option to carry a greater number of guided weapons that still meet recovery weight requirements for shipboard landings.

ITF professionals began testing the new capability in earnest this spring and will continue through the year. The test team revived two specially instrumented test aircraft, CF-2 and BF-3—no small task for the ITF’s maintenance department—to record the necessary data surrounding aerodynamic loads, noise and vibrations induced on both the aircraft and weapons. Neither aircraft have flown since 2018, when the F-35 completed system development and demonstration.

The first planned airborne test events consist of envelope expansion flights in which test pilots put the weapons through their paces while flying carefully scripted flight profiles to ensure each weapon will perform as advertised throughout the entire published flight envelope. The weapons will then undergo shake, rattle and roll (SRR) carrier suitability testing. Each test will involve an SRR-qualified Landing Signals Officer to “wave” the aircraft into shore-based arrested landings to execute high sink rate, rolled, yawed and off centerline landings that ensure the weapons are safe for the darkest of pitching deck night traps.

In addition, the test team will measure aircraft handling qualities and weapon dynamics during F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing operations. Finally, each weapon will drop in the Patuxent River’s restricted areas under intense analysis using high-speed videography to ensure each store separation is a safe event.

Once the F-35 ITF completes GBU-38 and GBU-54 testing, the weapons will move to operational test at Edwards Air Force Base in California prior to fleet release.

The F-35 test pilots, flight test engineers and engineering staff at VX-23 are excited to bring new capabilities to the fleet and to enhance both the lethality and operational flexibility of the Navy and Marine Corps’ first stealth fighter.