November 13, 2008: F-35's First Supersonic Flight

  • Published
  • Air Force Flight Test Center

Lockheed Martin’s pre-production F-35 (AA-1) conducted its first supersonic flight on this day. The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) test vehicle attained Mach 1.05 during its 69th flight overall, which lasted 58 minutes. This brought the aircraft’s total flight hours to 95.5. The AA-1 was representative of the conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant of the JSF.

The F-35 pilot who flew the two infamous supersonic missions that inflicted damage to the jet’s stealth coating and tail wants to set the record straight.  When pilots conduct supersonic intercepts or find themselves needing to race away from an enemy during combat, they will be able to take the F-35 to its furthest limits of speed and altitude — most likely without any permanent damage to the aircraft, he told Defense News in an exclusive interview.  Last June, Defense News revealed that the Pentagon had instituted time limits on the number of seconds the F-35B short-takeoff-and-landing variant and the F-35C carrier variant could spend at supersonic speeds.

When Defense News first reported on the F-35’s limits on supersonic speeds in 2019, they were classified by the Pentagon as two separate category 1 deficiencies, representing the most serious type of technical issue.  The Defense Department considers the issue “closed” as of December 2019 despite no plan to correct the problem. The F-35 Joint Program Office explained that “the operator value provided by a complete fix does not justify the estimated cost of that fix.”  Still, the documents obtained by Defense News stated that F-35C supersonic intercept missions may be impossible. Simulator testing showed that restricting supersonic flight at full afterburner to a maximum of 50 seconds could prevent the C model from reaching the 1.44 Mach endpoint for weapon launches, according to the F-35 integrated test team at Patuxent River.  To cut down the risk of damage to the jet, the Pentagon imposed time limits on how long F-35B and F-35C pilots can spend at supersonic speeds in full afterburner. An F-35C can only fly at Mach 1.3 in afterburner for 50 cumulative seconds, meaning that a pilot cannot clock 50 seconds at that speed, slow down for a couple seconds and then speed back up. The F-35B can fly for 80 cumulative seconds at Mach 1.2 or for 40 seconds at Mach 1.3 without risking damage.  The time requirements reset after the pilot operates at military power — an engine power setting that allows for less speed and thrust than afterburner — for a duration of three minutes

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