Naval Air: When The F-35 Is Too Hot To Handle

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June 7, 2013: Over the last five years, testing of the STOVL (vertical takeoff and landing) or “B” version of the new American F-35 fighter showed that its F135 engine, the most powerful to ever be used in a fighter, generated enough heat to damage carrier decks. The F-35B engine heat effect was reduced by adjusting of the F135 exhaust (dispersing over a larger area). This, however, did not eliminate the other heat related problems. Components beneath the deck required better protection from the higher heat levels. On the smaller helicopter carriers (like the Wasp class) it was found that many nearby systems on the much smaller flight deck could be damaged by an F-35B landing or taking off too close to things like weapons (Phalanx and the like), antennas, aviation fuel outlets, fuel pipes, life rafts, life rails, safety nets, some electrical gear, and most other equipment that was safe to leave near the older AV-8B Harrier STOVL. So these items have to be either moved or provided with more heat protection.

The basic problem was that the F-35B is larger, and puts out more engine blast, than the current AV-8B, which has been in service since 1969. That early version was used mainly by the British Royal Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps. It was an 11 ton aircraft (7 tons when taking off vertically) that carried about two tons of weapons. In the 1980s, a more powerful 14 ton version was developed, which could carry three tons of weapons. That generated more heat, but not enough to be a problem. The F-35B, which will replace the AV-8B, is a 27 ton aircraft that can carry six tons of weapons and is stealthy. In vertical takeoff mode the F-35B will carry about twice the weapons as the Harrier and have about twice the range (800 kilometers).

On land the F-35B also causes heat problems with the PSP (Perforated Steel Planking) used for rapidly constructed airfields. PSP is one of those prosaic innovations that everyone takes for granted. PSP is perforated metal matting that is used to rapidly create all-weather airstrips that can handle jet fighters and helicopters.

The original Marsden Mats of World War II were made of a rust-resistant steel alloy. The sheets of steel had holes in them (to allow for drainage) and slots by which they could easily be linked together. In less than two days engineers could build an airstrip over a kilometer long (usually 1.3 kilometers or about 4,000 feet) that could handle aircraft up to 28 tons. That meant four engine bombers like B-17s and B-24s (but not the 30 ton, when empty, B-29) could land on these airstrips.

The current version of Marsden Mats is called PSP and comes as metal panels that are three meters (10 foot) long, 38cm (15 inches) wide, and weigh 20 kg (66 pounds) each. PSP can handle heavier loads but not heavy bombers like the B-1/2/52. PSP has recently run into another problem with modern warplanes, heat from the F-135 engine of the F-35B. The adjusting of the F135 exhaust also protected the PSP from serious damage.

 


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