The F-35 program's first in-flight weapon separation occurred in August 2012, when Lockheed Martin test pilot Dan Levin dropped an inert 1,000-pound GBU-32 JDAM over the Atlantic test range. Since then, an integrated team across services and industry have achieved dozens of weapons flight test milestones.
In September 2015, an F-35C piloted by Theodore “Dutch” Dyckman, successfully separated four 500-pound bombs at the Atlantic Test Range in a test conducted by the Patuxent River Integrated Test Force. This was yet another first for the F-35 program.
Dropping each of the inert Guided Bomb Unit-12s (GBU-12s) took only a few milliseconds but required a diverse team of engineers years of effort, research, analysis, planning and flight clearance paperwork to get there. There are currently about 50 different versions of weapons that the F-35 has been designed to be compatible with, and an integrated team is in the process of certifying even more weapons for the future.
Melana Maxie, F-35 store certification and separation manager at Lockheed Martin, spends her days making sure weapons, like the GBU-12 laser-guided inert bombs used in the quadruple separation test, can be safely loaded, carried and employed from the F-35.
“That’s why we’re here,” Melana said about her teams’ support of the test. Melana is responsible for seeing all F-35 weapons – external and internal – through the certification process at Lockheed Martin.
“This wasn’t the first separation by any means,” she explains, “but it was the first external separation of a GBU-12 and the first time we released four weapons in one flight. That was special.”
Step by Step
The whole process of certifying new weapons starts with a customer request for the added capability. Melana’s team works closely with their counterparts at the Joint Program Office (JPO) to define requirements and execute the studies for weapons.
Initially, the study team conducts a Phase I feasibility assessment, where they evaluate the fit of the weapon and its compatibility to the jet. For example, does the weapon work with currently designed hardware and are the electrical and mechanical interfaces compatible with the F-35? When the assessment is favorable, the team moves on to a more thorough Phase II compatibility assessment, which includes evaluating other carriage solutions like new adapters, pylons and release mechanisms. The team takes a close look at how this would impact other factors like support equipment, training and flight tests.
The Right Fit
Once the weapon can fit inside or outside of the jet, it might still require new hardware. Wind tunnel testing, extensive analysis, pit testing – where the jet is in a test facility and executes weapons drops into a pit beneath the bay – simulations, and flight testing must be successfully completed before tests like September’s quadruple separation.
This test was a great success in providing a new capability for the aircraft. However, this is only one small brush stroke in the greater picture of certifying a new weapon. Melana’s team compiles the results of analysis and tests from more than 20 other disciplines and then submits the final store certification recommendation package that verifies the weapon can be safely loaded, carried and employed from the jet.
“Weapons are where it’s at,” she said. “The F-35 will continue to be a strong program for decades as we continue to expand the F-35’s arsenal and provide relevant war fighting and peacekeeping capability to our customers.”