The Navy’s next-generation strike fighter has dropped a bomb for the first time as it completed another successful test milestone in the USA.
A 1,000lb practice bomb was dropped from the internal bay of an F35B – the jump jet which will be the mainstay of Royal Navy aircraft carrier operations from the end of the decade, over a range off the Eastern Seaboard.
Picture: Layne Laughter, Lockheed Martin
This is the very first time the Fleet Air Arm’s next-generation jet has released a weapon in flight.
Flying at 400kts (460mph) some 4,200ft over the Atlantic, an F35 Joint Strike Fighter releases a 1,000lb practice bomb from its internal bomb bay and drops it into the ocean off an American test range.
It’s the first time any of the three different variants of the F35 – there’s a traditional land-based version, a ‘cats and traps’ carrier version for the US Navy and, for the Fleet Air Arm, RAF, US Marine Corps and Italy, a jump jet.
And it fell to the jump jet version, the F35B, to carry out the crucial test of the first weapons release – a milestone in the enormous Anglo-American programme as testing increasingly moves on to ‘fighting’ the aircraft, rather than flying it.
The F35 is classed as the world’s ‘fifth generation’ jet fighter – the Gloster Meteor and Messerschmitt 262 were first, the Harrier third, while the RAF’s Typhoons are fourth generation.
Its advanced technology means aircraft can ‘share’ information – a pilot can see everything his wingman can see – while cameras all around the jet give the pilot 360˚ visibility thanks to a hi-tech helmet.
The Lightning II is also capable of reaching more than one and a half times the speed of sound and carrying twice the payload of a Harrier.
And where Britain’s much-loved jump jet carried bombs externally, that’s not the case on its successor.
“Using an internal weapons bay speaks to how much capability the Joint Strike Fighter is going to bring to the troops,” said Lockheed test pilot Dan Levin.
“Stealth, fifth generation avionics, and precision weapons, coupled with the flexible mission capability of the short take-off and vertical landing F35B is going to be huge for our warfighters.”
It was Mr Levin’s honour to drop the first weapon – for the record it was a GBU-32 Joint Direct Attack Munition (or JDAM – in simple parlance, a guided bomb).
An aerial weapons separation test checks the proper release of the weapon from its carriage system and the trajectory away from the aircraft.
It was the culmination of a significant number of prerequisite tests, including ground fit checks, ground pit drops and environment flights to ensure the system was working properly before the live drop.
The data gathered by the first bomb release is now being analysed by experts at Pax River, the US Navy’s test pilot school southeast of Washington.
After this test further work begins with the F35’s precision weapons, allowing pilots to engage the enemy on the ground and in the air.
The UK has bought three prototype F35s with the possibility of a fourth being ordered. Around one seventh of the work on the jets is carried out by firms in the UK – some 130 companies are involved in the state-of-the-art aircraft.
Lightning II will be operational from land-based airfields in the UK from 2018 – probably RAF Marham – when it will also begin flight trials off carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth.