The US Navy’s version of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is scheduled to make its first flight next year, with technicians having spent the last decade perfecting stealth design and materials to ensure the aircraft stands up to harsh carrier-deck and combat conditions with little upkeep.

‘The F-35C’s stealth will bring a profound increase in capability to the navy’s fighter fleet. What it will not bring is increased maintenance,’ Steve O’Bryan, a former carrier fighter pilot and director of F-35 Domestic Business Development for Lockheed Martin, said in a statement.

‘The Lightning II is a 5th generation fighter with supportable stealth that was designed into the aircraft from the very beginning. It will endure extreme abuse without degrading its stealth radar-signature performance,’ he added.

The F-35 is a supersonic, multi-role, 5th generation stealth fighter. Three F-35 variants derived from a common design, developed together and using the same sustainment infrastructure worldwide, will replace at least 13 types of aircraft for 11 nations initially, making the Lightning II the most economical fighter programme in history, its manufacturer says.

The programme is on schedule to deliver aircraft to the US military services beginning in 2010.

‘The first test aircraft has completed 35 flights and has exceeded performance expectations. The inaugural flight of the first short takeoff/vertical landing F-35B is on schedule for mid-2008. All the 19 test aircraft are in production flow or on the flightline. Assembly has begun on the first two production F-35s,’ a Lockheed Martin statement said.

The F-35 achieves its ‘very low observable’ stealth performance through its fundamental design, its external shape and its manufacturing processes, which control tolerances to less than half the diameter of a human hair. Special coatings are added to further reduce radar signature.

‘The package is designed to remain stealthy in severe combat conditions, and tests have validated that capability. After obtaining baseline radar cross section (RCS) measurements from a highly detailed, full-scale signature measurement aircraft (SigMA), a team of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman engineers intentionally inflicted extensive damage – more than three dozen significant defects – on the model,’ the statement said.

‘The damage represented the cumulative effect of more than 600 flight hours of military aircraft operations. RCS measurements taken after the damage showed that the stealthy signature remained intact,’ it added.

According to O’Bryan, even operating in harsh carrier-deck conditions, the F-35C will require no special care or feeding. In fact, its stealth adds very little to the day-to-day maintenance equation.

‘We’ve come a long way from the early stealth airplanes, which needed hours or even days of attention and repair after every flight. The F-35 not only avoids that intensive level of upkeep, it will require significantly less maintenance than the nonstealth fighters it is designed to replace,’ O’Bryan added.

A total of 2,581 F-35s are planned for the US and British services, with more than 600 additional aircraft expected to be integrated into the air forces of seven other partnering nations.

Built in three variants, the F-35 will replace AV-8Bs and F/A-18s of the US Marine Corps; A-10s and F-16s of the US Air Force; F/A-18s of the US Navy; Sea Harriers, GR.7s and GR.9s of Britain’s Royal Air Force and Royal Navy; and other aircraft currently used by F-35 participant countries.

The F-35A is a conventional takeoff and landing variant designed for use with conventional runways. The F-35B is a short takeoff/vertical landing version that can operate from small carriers, austere bases and deploy near front-line combat zones.

The F-35C will be the US Navy’s first stealth aircraft, and is designed to withstand the rigors of catapult launches and arrested recoveries aboard the Navy’s large carriers.

Lockheed Martin is developing the F-35 with its principal industrial partners, Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems. Two separate, interchangeable F-35 engines are under development: the Pratt & Whitney F135 and the GE Rolls-Royce Fighter Engine Team F136.

Headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, Lockheed Martin employs about 140,000 people worldwide and reported 2007 sales of $41.9 billion.

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