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Car Review

Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning review

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Published: 04 Jan 2021
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Buying

What should I be paying?

‘Owning’ is quite the phrase. Because an F-35 B costs somewhere in the region of £100m (the simpler F-35 A is more like £85m), and you don’t just buy one. You buy and run a bunch of them to work together in packs.

But the Lightning aims to counteract its slightly high point of entry with significantly lower maintenance costs than all the jets that have gone before it. So you’re looking at figures like six hours of maintenance per flying hour (rather than nine), and three engineers per check-up (as opposed to ten). It’s all aimed at reaching a target running cost of $25,000 per flying hour.

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The jet doesn’t just use automated tech to help out its pilot, either. It assists its maintenance team in a similar manner, with its onboard computers flagging up potential faults or maintenance requirements before they become critical, and even identifying to what extent the F-35’s stealth coating might need repair – and calculating when it’ll be best to park the jet up and have this done. A process which can take place in the confines of a carrier, where it previously needed a forensic lab on dry land.

All of which makes us ask Jim whether the jet – and its array of systems – could be vulnerable to cyber-attack that makes it redundant – or worse – turns it against its own force.

“Its brain conducts a really clever thing called a VSBIT – a vehicle systems built-in test,” says Jim. “The pilot presses a button just before he’s going to take off and the jet looks at itself and asks ‘am I fit to fly?’

“You’re watching its panels fly everywhere, it’s doing all this funky stuff, and then it comes back and says ‘VSBIT complete’. So long as that’s done, it doesn’t matter what’s happening on the outside world, the jet is good to go.”

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It can do that offline – making the F-35 able to operate in the unlikely event of a cyber-attack on its systems – and the VSBIT takes one minute. Sixty seconds to perform checks which comprised a one-day process on F-15, or an entire shift for the F-16. Where those fourth-generation jets needed their engines firing up to perform pre-flight checks, you simply press a button on a computer screen for the Lightning.

The lifetime of F-35 is officially 8,000 hours, but that’s a figure actually decided by the US government, who officially head up the programme (or ‘program’, given it’s ‘Murican). Lockheed Martin has successfully tested F-35 As for 24,000 hours, and has the data to prove a safe 12,000 hours of airworthiness, so expect the jet’s lifespan to be extended in the years to come.

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