- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Right now, the good people of St. Mary’s County have about nine of what may be the world’s most advanced aircraft in their midst.
Good people, meet the F-35 Lightning II, starlet of the Navy’s Joint Strike Fighter Program.
Weighing in between 29,300 and 34,800 pounds, it stands a sleek 14 feet high and stretches 51 feet long. Internal fuel capacity: up to 19,750 pounds.
When it’s time to rock and roll, the fighter jets carry cannons, missiles and bombs, up to 18,000 pounds of them.
This jaw-dropping combination of destruction and engineering prowess cracks the sky, traveling faster than sound, up to 1,200 miles per hour with weapons onboard.
Chances are if you live in St. Mary’s County, engineers and pilots say, you’ve seen an F-35. If you haven’t seen one, you’ve probably heard it.
The Air Force’s variant can burst through the air with a force nine times greater than gravity.
Think about swinging a bucket of water around in a circle, but none of the water spills out. That’s sort of how some pilots describe G-force. The stronger the force, the more the pilot can feel strains, which they’ve been trained to overcome, such as rises in blood pressure, nausea, even passing out.
In placid comparison, a rapidly moving elevator might take people to twice the force of gravity. When the elevator stops, that brief sensation is about what it feels to be moving at zero gravity.
Engineers and pilots at Patuxent River Naval Air Station are testing how well the aircraft structures, the bodies of the aircraft, hold up to the incredible force they endure with each flight.
Each component is designed to carry a certain load of stress — whether that component is designed to last 2,000 hours or as long as the aircraft itself.
Lt. Cmdr. Michael Burks heads a team that gets aircraft ready for flight, then tests the jets out himself.
Burks was born at Pax River, and dreamed of flying through the air at what is for most unthinkable speed and force. Part of Burk’s inspiration was his dad, a helicopter pilot. Another part, he laughed, was the movie “Top Gun.”
His work day is anything but easy-going. Pilots get assignment cards each morning that tell them what parts of the aircraft their flight is designed to test. And, they’ll do maneuvers at varying complexity and rates of speed, force and distance.
F-35 weapons release capabilities are high on the test list. Pilots have been soaring over the Chesapeake Bay or the Atlantic — depending on how much space a bomb requires for testing to be effective — and dropping inert bombs to determine the potential “footprint” of that weapon, and whether the releases happen at the right time, while traveling at the assigned speed and altitude. They also look at what happens when a release could be off just by a few seconds, knots, feet.
Pilots also have also been testing the helmet pilots need to fly the F-35.
Think of the driver of a car using the dashboard to gauge critical readings. Fighter pilots had been getting their inflight readings quite similarly, forced at times to take their gaze off whatever was outside the windows.
Now, they wear headgear that projects readings directly in front of them. These helmets need to be dependable for night missions, and for constant and accurate processing of data from thousands of aircraft sensors, regardless of the aircraft’s speed and the maneuver the pilot is conducting.
Seth Dion is the Navy’s team lead for loads flight testing — ensuring aircraft structures are built to handle their missions over time.
What will happen if the airplane takes a sharp turn, or completes a 360-degree roll, or drops a bomb? Test pilots carry out these what-if missions.
Engineers on Dion’s team measure all those forces on aircraft, he said. Data from the sensors show how much “load” or stress was imparted, and he said, “what parts of the aircraft need to be strengthened.”
Before pilots hit the skies, Dion’s team works with them in simulators. These may be among the world’s most high-tech video games, designed by engineers who understand the requirements and dangers of war and the caliber of equipment aviators need to survive.
“We’ve done a fantastic job of getting some of the best talent in the industry here for this program,” Dion said. Pilots and test teams have been completing their work either on or ahead of schedule. “We’ve been working very, very hard,” he said.