58-year-old British pilot takes F-35B into the air

Farnborough Air Show » 2008
July 2, 2008, 12:14 PM

When Lockheed Martin chose a test pilot to take the F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) version through development and into the air, the company realized there is no substitute for experience. Therefore, when aircraft F-35BF-1 took to the skies over Texas last month, a 58-year-old British pilot was at the controls.

“I’m old but supposedly wise,” Graham Tomlinson told AIN at the Lockheed Martin plant in Fort Worth, Texas, where he has spent the past six years. Tomlinson was a test pilot for BAE Systems for 22 years. Of more significance, he has been flying STOVL jets since 1974, when he joined his first Harrier squadron in the Royal Air Force. He qualified as a test pilot in 1978, and has since been at the forefront of the “jump jet” development.

Tomlinson was part of the team that took the first Sea Harriers onto the HMS Invincible. He spent three years at the U.S. Naval Air Test Center in Patuxent River, test flying the AV-8B for the U.S. Marine Corps.

However, Tomlinson was not the first British pilot to fly the Harrier’s eventual replacement. “When Lockheed Martin built the X-35 to compete against Boeing in the Joint Strike Fighter fly-off, I sent my deputy, Simon Hargreaves. At that time, I was busy closing our test site at Dunsfold,” he explained.

That was eight years ago. After the X-35 won the competition, Tomlinson became “the long-term guiding hand” for the F-35B flight test development. As one of two major partners with Lockheed Martin on the F-35, BAE has also provided designers and engineers with unique experience in STOVL operations.

“It’s been a unique, exciting, interesting six years,” Tomlinson continued. He has spent a lot of that time in the simulator, and the seasoned pilot has been particularly involved with development of the F-35B’s control laws–and, of course, the detailed design of the cockpit. “We’ve made it easy to fly, so that pilots can devote their full attention to the mission. There are less than ten switches–and only three to start the jet,” he noted. “But keeping the basics incredibly simple for the regular pilots makes it incredibly complex for us as we try to weave our magic.”

So how has Tomlinson prepared specifically for the first flight of BF-1? After all, a fast-jet jockey must keep current in that particularly demanding type of flying. Tomlinson said he has made periodic return visits to the UK to fly the VAAC Harrier testbed at Boscombe Down. VAAC stands for vectored-thrust aircraft advanced flight control, and this modified aircraft has been a key tool in the development of the F-35’s control laws. Also at Boscombe, Tomlinson has flown Hawk jet trainers while wearing the revolutionary F-35 pilot’s helmet. He has also flown a Pitts Special with this helmet on, which sounds like fun but has a serious purpose: to test its feel and fit during high-g maneuvers. This year, he has been flying Boeing F/A-18 Hornets at Patuxent River to “tick the boxes” required to take a U.S.-owned warplane airborne.

“A successful first flight is a takeoff followed by a landing,” he said, by way of explaining that the goals for the F-35B’s maiden voyage were not too ambitious. The plan was as follows: climb to 15,000 feet with gear down; do handling checks in the landing configuration; sample the controls for his own benefit and that of the telemetry team on the ground; gradually explore throttle changes; cycle the landing gear; explore the controls some more; then descend to 5,000 feet and fly a loose formation with the chase F-16 to sample with higher gains before making final adjustments for the landing, including a practice wave-off at 3,000 feet.

On June 11, the plan was executed. “A great team effort led to a relaxed first flight, with the aircraft handling and performing just as we predicted,” said Tomlinson. He noted that the BF-1 aircraft has many changes compared to AA-1, the first F-35 to fly. In addition to the obvious changes for STOVL flight (namely, the shaft-driven lift fan [SDLF], swiveling exhaust nozzle and underwing roll ducts), BF-1 has new weight-saving structure, changes to the engine inlet, a new air data system and more.

Prior to the first flight, Tomlinson tested the aircraft’s STOVL propulsion system while tethered over the “hover pit” at Fort Worth, but unless the first STOVL flight-qualified engine is received ahead of the current schedule, the first F-35B will not transition to STOVL mode in flight until next spring. And full exploration of this demanding regime will not occur until the first two F-35Bs are moved to Patuxent River in mid-2009.

Tomlinson plans to stick around Fort Worth long enough to complete the initial STOVL envelope expansion of the F-35B. By then he will be pushing 60. But not to worry, he said: “When I leave, my replacement will be Peter Wilson, another BAE test pilot that I recruited. He has already been here 18 months.”

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