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F-35 Test Flight Deemed a Success

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By ANGELA K. BROWN
The Associated Press
Saturday, December 16, 2006; 12:03 AM

FORT WORTH, Texas -- The new stealth fighter jet that will replace an aging fleet of military planes experienced a largely successful first flight Friday, with only a minor glitch, Lockheed Martin Corp. officials said.

Jon S. Beesley, chief test pilot for the Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the F-35, said the plane handled "marvelously," performed flawlessly and flew better than the simulator. He flew to 15,000 feet, escorted by three jets that provided safety and took pictures.

"It was a great adventure," he said. "Today really started the opening for me for the rest of this greatest fighter program in history where we're going to go forward and develop this great weapons system that will protect everybody, and that's what it's all about."

Officials initially said the test flight would last an hour; Beesley flew for 35 minutes.

One of two air data sensors was not operating properly, he said. Although it did not pose a danger, the procedure called for ending the flight at that time, preventing completion of the remaining few tests, including raising the landing gear, officials said.

"Certainly to fly this first flight with the duration of almost 40 minutes and to only have this single warning appear in the pilot's display related to this sensor is remarkable, and we're really pleased with the quality of this first jet," said Dan Crowley, executive vice president and general manager of the Joint Strike Fighter program.

Runway tests that began last week were completed this week. Officials had been waiting for good weather for the maiden flight, which almost didn't happen Friday because of fog and wind.

Security was tight Friday at Lockheed's Fort Worth facility, where the flight took place. But hundreds of cars parked on the side of the road outside the plant near the runway, many people holding video cameras in hopes of catching a glimpse of the supersonic jet, as word spread of the test flight. Many cheered as the plane took off.

Lockheed employees gathered near the runway also applauded, and some were moved to tears as the gray jet took off, said some officials, who reported receiving phone calls from other countries as soon as news spread of the flight.

"I would call this the flight that was heard round the world," said Tom Burbage, executive vice president for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. and general manager for the Joint Strike Fighter program integration.

Beesley, who was greeted with roaring cheers as he stepped out of the cockpit after landing, later said the plane will continue test flights next week. Brig. Gen. Charles R. Davis, the program executive officer for the F-35 Lightning II program office in Arlington, Va., said this jet was the first of 20 planes to be built at Lockheed's Fort Worth plant that will have test flights there over the next 18 months.

After 10 years of development, Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin is moving to the early stages of production for what could be thousands of fighter jets for the American military and eight countries _ and possibly the largest defense contract ever, $275 billion over the next two decades.

The U.S. plans to use the F-35 to replace aging planes used by the Marines, Air Force and Navy, including jets like the F-16, the F-18 and the Harrier jet.

Lockheed and its subcontractors are making three different versions that will be used by the different branches. The Marine version will be able to make vertical takeoffs.

___

Associated Press writer Stephen Manning contributed to this report from College Park, Md.


© 2006 The Associated Press

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