In Issue 3 2015, MS&T looked at the progress of the F-35 programme, with specific focus on aircrew training, and the plans of the partner nations. Depending on their level of partnership in the programme, these nations are also very much involved from an industrial perspective, not least the UK. Europe Editor Dim Jones reports.
The F-35 programme is estimated to be worth over £1bn per year to British industry, and is expected to support 25000 jobs over 25 years. Alongside the major contribution of BAE Systems and Rolls Royce, over 130 British companies are in the F-35 supply chain. The contribution of most of these companies is not confined to the F-35B or tied to the UK purchase; they have been involved with the F-35 from the start of the programme. Two such companies are BAE Systems, and Manchester-based EDM.
Preparations for a manufacturing role in F-35 started at BAE Systems as far back as 1999 with the installation of developmental facilities alongside the Hawk and Typhoon production lines. Production started in 2010 in 2 purpose-built facilities at Samlesbury, one manufacturing large structural components, and the other assembling the rear fuselage, and horizontal and vertical tails, which are the company’s principal contributions to the programme.
The structural components are manufactured exclusively from titanium, and arrive at Samlesbury roughly machined to shape. They then enter Building 610 and the two Flexible Manufacturing System (FMS) lines, which comprises a total of 16 machines. This, to anyone used to a traditional aircraft manufacturing facility is extraordinary for its lack of noise, smell, dirt and people. The precision milling of components takes place in one of eight 5-axis machining centres, manufactured by Starrag Heckert, a Swiss company. They are fully computer-controlled and supplied by an automated component delivery system made by Fastems of Finland. With pre-programming, these machines are quite capable of operating autonomously for extended periods of time. Each FMS is served by a cutting tool store managed by a Fanuc 6-axis robot. Each store contains 2000 high-speed solid or indexable carbide tipped tools of 90 different types.
The process is supervised by human beings; a normal day shift comprises 12 people. There is virtually no evidence of swarf or other by-products of the milling process; all waste is collected by a vacuum system, and material recycled to less hi-tech applications where appropriate. Before each new operation, the whole sequence is modelled and replayed dynamically to ensure no collision between milling machine and component. The process can be speeded up such that a 1-day cycle takes one hour, and is remodelled every time any change is made.
The finished component is inspected visually, and also for the required tolerances, in an environmentally controlled area by the Component Measuring Machine (CMM); it is then ready to take its place in the Integrated Assembly Line (IAL).
The IAL is more like a production line, although unmistakably state-of-the-art. In process, it owes a lot to the car industry; each assembly spends 55 days in the facility, and moves to a new part of the line every Monday morning at 0800. The IAL has undergone a stage-by-stage expansion to accommodate increased production, and is in the process of expanding to 25000m3; spare capacity is evident from unused bays. The maximum output will be 225 per year (or about one per working day); current production is running at 48 per year, and steady state is expected to be 170-196. There are currently about 250 people ‘hands-on’ in the facility, working a 2-shift system, but this too will change; the aim is quadruple the production at half the unit cost.
Component supply and availability is the key to a seamless production line. Apart from the produce of Building 610, there are facilities at Samlesbury for the manufacture of aluminium and carbon-fibre components. In general, the high-tech/high cost items are produced on-site, and the rest imported. On receipt, they are made up into aircraft sets, and there should always be 3 sets ready to go. The assemblies are initially ‘left’ or ‘right’, but are eventually joined and become recognisable as the back end of an aircraft. Each operation is checked using a laser-tracker. The skin is carbon-fibre, and is joined to the structure by bolts, not rivets. The pre-fabricated countersinking is so precise that the surface is flush without further attention. The paint process is completed manually – less paint means less weight - but the time is reduced by reusable plugs instead of masking to keep bolt-holes paint-free.
On completion, the rear fuselage assemblies are final-checked by an on-site Lockheed Martin inspector; results have been so good that on-receipt inspections in the US have been suspended, and the BAE Systems programme was commended by Lt Gen Chris Bogdan, the Program Executive Officer for F-35. Each assembly has cost about £6.5m, and will proceed from Samlesbury to Luxembourg for regulatory explosive testing, thence returning to UK for onward shipment by air to the US.
Finally, a word about training. Many of those working on the F-35 started their careers as apprentices at the BAE Systems Engineering Skills Training Centre in Preston. They will spend one year there, and then 3 more in progressive stages of training at Samlesbury. There are 16 Team Leaders in the IAL, all ex-apprentices, and half of them are under 25. Long careers are also the norm – there are 3 generations of one family currently working at Samlesbury.
Meanwhile, some 40 miles south of Samlesbury, EDM - a manufacturer of precision-engineered training, interactive and simulation equipment for both military and civil applications - have also been involved with the F-35 programme. Already well known for its work on Hawk, Typhoon, Tornado and PC-9, the company has developed a Weapon Loading Trainer (WLT) and Ejection System Maintenance Trainer (ESMT), which are applicable to CTOL, STOVL and CV variants of the F-35. Using high-fidelity representation of the F-35’s fuselage weapons bays, the WLT provides armourers with valuable hands-on practical training in the correct procedures for loading and unloading weapons, support and release equipment, and alternate mission equipment. The ESMT, already installed and commissioned at Eglin AFB, is used to train ground crew and aircrew, the former in the correct maintenance procedures and the latter in ingress and egress. Working in agreement with Martin Baker, EDM have manufactured high-fidelity simulated ejection seats, equipped with dummy cartridge set, barostatic time release units, drogue gun, rocket seat and personal survival pack, which allow training in removal, servicing and refit of seats, and can also be used for certification of maintenance technicians. Faults can be introduced which would be difficult or dangerous to replicate on the real equipment, so trainees can prepare for situations which they might not otherwise encounter until it happens for real.
The F-35 work is only a small part of what EDM do and, indeed, defence is only a small part of what they do. Other military applications are G-Cueing ejection seats for flight simulators, helicopter underwater egress trainers (HUET), cockpit training systems and electrical/electronic diagnostics trainers (EDT). The G-Cueing seats provide real-time motion cues for the pilot through a number of dynamic modules, and are designed to be retrofitted into existing simulators using Martin Baker Mark 10 and Mark 16 seats. The HUET can be configured to represent a variety of rotary and fixed-wing aircraft and provides a platform to enable all those involved in aircraft operations for the military, emergency services, search and rescue and oil operations to develop and practise the skill necessary to overcome disorientation in underwater escape situations. The EDT allows simulation of faults in the electrical systems and electronic equipment of the British Army’s Titan and Trojan (specialist bridge-laying and digger variants of the Challenger 2 MBT). EDM cockpit trainers have been delivered worldwide for aircraft including F-16, Gripen, Typhoon, Hawk, Typhoon and F-35, and can be configured for CPT, FTD and FMS, including breathing air, G-suit and NVG functionality.
Outside the scope of this article, EDM’s main area of operations is the provision of commercial cabin crew training equipment, including door trainers, emergency evacuation trainers, cabin service trainers and full-size aircraft mock-ups.
Queen Elizabeth Class
Industry support for the F-35 programme is not confined to manufacturing. Early in the programme, the UK identified that the designers of the Queen Elizabeth Class (QEC) carriers, from which the aircraft would operate, needed information on the aircraft, and vice versa. Additionally, the unique concept of carrier operations from the QEC required some development modelling work to be done on the management of the flight deck as well as flying techniques. In addition to the ski-jump, allowing semi-conventional take-off at greater weights, recovery to the deck can also be achieved by either vertical landing or the Ship-borne Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL), which again allows recovery at greater landing weight, such as with unexpended ordnance. In the former case, the aircraft is recovered to a position alongside the desired landing spot at 100ft, then manoeuvred sideways until over the deck, and descended vertically. For the SRVL, the aircraft is recovered to the ship centreline at a height of 200ft, and closes until a 7o glideslope is achieved, then descended on the 7o slope, guided by ship-motion-stabilised indicator lights, until contact with the deck at a predesignated touchdown spot. BAE Systems have utilised an existing motion base flight simulator at Warton which has been employed in the development of these F-35 techniques, using data supplied by the QEC Carrier Alliance.
What would otherwise be quite difficult procedures are made very much easier by the automation of the aircraft, and by the data link between ship and aircraft, which allows the aircraft to know exactly where it is in relation to the ship, and what the ship is doing. Basic aircraft information like speed, weight, fuel load, plus some Health and Usage Monitoring System (HUMS)-type data, is transmitted to the ship, while the aircraft receives ship information such as position, heading and speed. Both aircraft and ship will also be Link 16- and TACAN-equipped. During the approaches, a detent on the F-35 throttle can be used to maintain current speed, and the fly-by wire maintains a selected altitude – unless tinkered with by someone like me! When established on the final approach, a switch on the throttle begins an automatic deceleration, controlling engine, LiftSystem and nozzles to achieve a stable position alongside the landing spot. At this point, fore-and-aft position can be fine-tuned using a ‘blip’ of the airbrake switch. Moving laterally to overhead the landing spot I found required quite heavy control movements in the simulator; how representative that is of the aircraft I know not. Another switch on the throttle allows the pilot to select either a mode whereby the null position on the sidestick maintains the selected angle of bank, or one in which release of stick pressure brings the wings back to level. Once established in the hover, the aircraft knows it has no forward speed, so vertical descent is effected by pushing the stick forward - quite hard, in order to ensure making the weight-on-wheels switch on touchdown (achieving this positive contact with the surface has never been a problem for me in conventional aircraft!). I found that this technique initially required a leap of faith. For the SRVL, the day is saved by the data link, which adjusts the Velocity Vector in the Helmet Mounted Display to compensate for the movement of the ship – in other words, plant the VV on the desired landing spot, and the aircraft will take care of everything. The HMDS provides a plethora of information, but it is relatively easy to concentrate on the bits that matter at any stage of flight. The efficacy of these systems is such that, after a bit of practice, I was able to perform SVRL and vertical recoveries, and ski-jump and vertical take-offs, by day and night – far from perfectly, it has to be admitted, and so slowly that those in charge of flying operations would have been tearing their hair out – but I could have walked away from them.
The QEC is unique in having 2 islands – one for controlling the ship, and the other for controlling the flight deck. The latter, known as FLYCO (Flying Control), is home to the LSO (Landing Signals Officer), an ATC officer, a DOO (Deck Ops Officer), Lt Cdr Flying (F), and a FLYCO assistant. In overall charge of FLYCO is Cdr Air (Wings), and occasionally he will be joined by the Commander Air Group (CAG). To support the development of the LSO monitoring aids, Warton have developed an LSO simulator, linked real-time to the F-35 cockpit simulator, which replicates FLYCO, either to explore purely LSO interaction with the pilot or, in the future, to have functionality and work stations for all FLYCO members, thereby enabling whole team interaction. The out-of-the-window view would be of the carrier flight deck, and the F35 flying entities would be dynamic and controlled by third parties, or fed from the F35 cockpit simulator, so that the aircraft would respond to the LSO’s commands and direction.
The deck landing simulator is due to be upgraded this year, and moved to a new facility which will include improved motion, a better visual dome, and a specific, rather than generic, cockpit. Future development of, and investment in, the Warton LSO simulator will depend on decisions from Navy and Air Commands about how they want to train LSOs and other FLYCO personnel.