COVID-19 Halts F-35 Flight Testing Until Further Notice

Flight testing of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and the Navy’s Patuxent River, Md., facility has been halted until further notice, due to the health and safety issues and the challenge of getting to work under California’s lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The stand-down in flight testing began on March 20, when Edwards scaled back all operations to “mission-essential” personnel and those who can telework. The F-35 Joint Program Office said all F-35 testing has ceased in other locations, as well, which would include Pax River. However, “select lab and ground test activities are ongoing, and aircraft-limited maintenance activities are ongoing to maintain fleet readiness,” a JPO spokeswoman said.

Flight testing for virtually all other USAF platforms, which the exception of some VIP transport types, also is conducted at Edwards, an Air Force official said. Neither the public affairs shops at Edwards nor Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., which conducts weapons evaluations, could be reached for an official summary of suspended flight activities.  

“We have a number of areas where we have to pause across the department in terms of what we’re doing, either in research and development, or in testing, or operations,” Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s acquisition and sustainment chief, said regarding the F-35 flight testing halt, during in a March 25 press conference.

She declined to comment on whether the go-ahead for F-35 full-rate production, already delayed, will slip past the March 2021 goal she has previously mentioned. Lord moved late last year to defer the full-rate production decision until after the F-35 was fully integrated with the Joint Simulation Environment, in which weapons can be evaluated virtually against a variety of threats. That was set to be accomplished this summer, and the results used to support the full-rate decision. The JSE integration is also necessary to complete Initial Operational Test and Evaluation, which is the key hurdle before declaring the F-35 ready for full-rate production.    

“We are moving forward while we work on COVID-19,” Lord told reporters. “We still have normal operations executing on our programs.”

The F-35 JPO is “taking steps now” to ensure that flight testing can resume “after COVID-19 restrictions are removed,” a JPO spokeswoman said. “Although certain developmental and fielding activities will likely experience delays, the F-35 teams continue to assess ways of furthering efforts while protecting and preserving our workforce’s health and safety,” she said.

Lord said she is in contact with F-35 program executive officer Lt. Gen. Eric Fick “at least once a day.” The JPO is “managing the program well” and Lord said the jet is “performing very, very well, operationally,” with the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and foreign partners.