US: F-35 fighter wraps up first test flight

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Washington, Dec 16: The costliest international warplane project, the F-35 Lightning 2 Joint Strike Fighter, safely completed its first test flight, advancing a 276.5 billion dollar programme financed by the United States and eight other countries.

''Aircraft has landed safely,'' said Tom Jurkowsky, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin Corp yesterday., after a test flight over Fort Worth, Texas, that lasted about 40 minutes. The company is developing three models of the radar-evading, multi-role fighter jet.

The United States' partners in the project are Britain, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway.

Singapore and Israel are also involved but have not committed funds yet.

Lockheed's top subcontractors on the aircraft are Northrop Grumman Corp. and BAE Systems Plc. Two separate, interchangeable F-35 engines are under development -- one built by United Technologies Corp.'s Pratt&Whitney unit, the other by a team of General Electric Co. and Rolls-Royce Plc.

''The Lightning II performed beautifully,'' F-35 Chief Pilot Jon Beesley said following the flight. ''What a great start for the flight-test program.'' The jet climbed to 15,000 feet. Beesley then performed a series of maneuvers to test aircraft handling and the operation of the engine and subsystems. Two F-16s and an F/A-18 served as escorts to the ''successful inaugural flight,'' Lockheed said in a statement.

The single-seat, single-engine F-35 is designed to replace a wide range of aging aircraft, including A-10s, F-16s, F/A-18 Hornets and British-built Harrier jump-jets.

The programme is due to start initial low-rate production next year. But US congressional investigators have said testing will have been inadequate at that point.

The first F-35 to fly was a conventional takeoff and landing model. Also being developed are a vertical takeoff and landing version and another designed to land on carriers.

The Pentagon plans to buy 2,443 F-35s by 2027 for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

Britain and the other partners are also expected to buy by 2014, bringing the consortium's combined total projected purchases to more than 3,100 aircraft, the No. 2 official in the Pentagon's program office, Marine Brig Gen David Heinz, said at the Reuters Aerospace and Defense summit in Washington on December. 5.

As early as 2010, the Pentagon expects to define an F-35 configuration for sale to even more countries through the US Foreign Military Sales program.

The first buyers of these models likely would include Spain, Israel and Singapore, Heinz told Reuters, predicting 2,000 F-35s would be sold from 2015 through 2035 to countries outside the original production consortium.

The hallmark of the program is affordability. Current procurement projections are the basis for the F-35's estimated average unit cost of 45 million dollar in 2002 dollars for the conventional model, to million for one designed to land on aircraft carriers.

Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon's No. 1 supplier, beat out Boeing Co. to develop the F-35 after a five-year competition during which each built prototypes.


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