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First-ever dual in-flight refueling of a pair of F-35C fighters


January 31, 2013

Two F-35C carrier variant fighters refuel from a single KC-130

Two F-35C carrier variant fighters refuel from a single KC-130

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For the first time, a pair of F-35C Joint Strike Fighters have simultaneously refueled from a KC-130 tanker aircraft. The aircraft's afterburners burn an enormous amount of fuel, so an important part of most missions will be refueling before or after combat, or both. This is why the successful dual refueling is an important benchmark for the JSF family.

The F-35C is the carrier variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JFS) family. It is ruggedized to survive the harsh conditions found on a carrier at sea, but maintains the stealth properties built into the entire JSF family. The F-35C differs from its brethren by having larger wings, larger control surfaces, and wingtip ailerons that increase the ability of the pilot to prepare properly for precision carrier landings. In addition, the F-35C has larger landing gear and a strengthened airframe to stand up under catapult launches and tailhook landings.

The refueling seen from a different angle – notice the drogue nozzles in place in the F-35C refueling ports

When fully loaded, the F-35C weighs a bit over 70,000 lbs (32,000 kg) – about 20,000 lbs (9100 kg) of which is fuel. It is powered by a single F135-PW-100 turbofan, which produces 25,000 lbs (110 kN) thrust without afterburner, and 40,000 lbs (178 kN) thrust with afterburner. As most fighters have a thrust-to-max loaded weight ratio of about 80 percent on afterburner and about 50-60 percent at full military thrust, it seems clear that the F-35C, at ratios of 57 and 36 percent, is likely to be a little sluggish.

The Pentagon has just reduced the performance standards for the F-35C. Among other changes, the length of time required to traverse the transonic speed range (roughly Mach 0.8-1.2) has been lengthened by 43 seconds. The benchmark for these standards is a clean F-16, which takes only about 20 seconds to accelerate through the transonic regime. The new requirement of over a minute for the F-35C confirms that it is rather underpowered, suggesting that in combat missions, it will spend a good deal of time on afterburner.

F-35C on full afterburners at night

Between exploding fuel tanks preventing flying missions near thunderstorms, being restricted to 5 g turns, cracks in the wings and flanges, a tendency to catch on fire, a fuel tank venting system that will not allow steep dives below 20,000 ft (6100 m), and using the same batteries that have just grounded the 787 fleet, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program has encountered some teething problems. Still, it is good to know that, whatever comes, if they remain in the air we can refuel them.

Source: Lockheed-Martin

About the Author
Brian Dodson From an early age Brian wanted to become a scientist. He did, earning a Ph.D. in physics and embarking on an R&D career which has recently broken the 40th anniversary. What he didn't expect was that along the way he would become a patent agent, a rocket scientist, a gourmet cook, a biotech entrepreneur, an opera tenor and a science writer. All articles by Brian Dodson

Uh, did anybody notice that the refueling plane cannot land or take off from a carrier?

Paul Gracey

It's more than 'teething problems'. This article emphasizes to me that they should have just upgraded the F16.

Joel Detrow

Well things do always go as planned in the defense business, cost overruns, missed deadlines, increased R&D expenditures. What's new? I just want everyone to buy an F-35 - I own Lockheed stock.

Mark A

The biggest problem with the F-35 is that like the F-111 it is a bomber. Some people like Strange McNamara try to use them as an air superiority weapon and are disappointed that they don't do it well. If the nave had been looking for a replacement for the A-6 Intruder The F-111 would not have been declared non carrier compatible by the brass in DC half way through the carrier compatibility tests.


oops "nave" is supposed to be "navy"


Should have stayed with the F22. Period

Rocky Stefano

While I like both the F-22 and the F-35, I too agree there could have been a much more cost effective way to do this. The F-15E in it's current configuration will carry 24,500 pounds of ordnance. Programs like the Agile Eagle and the F-16XL program would have been the way to go.

Much less the Northrop F-20, which I believe still holds the record for fastest 'cold start" intercept. You can buy three F-20's for one F-16. The F-20 was projected to consume 53% less fuel, require 52% less maintenance manpower, had 63% lower operating and maintenance costs and had four times the reliability of average front-line designs of the era. The F-20 also offer the ability to fire the beyond-visual-range AIM-7 Sparrow missile, a capability that the F-16 lacked at that time, and did not gain until February 1989.

As usual it was killed by politics.


"The F-20 was projected to..." well the f-35 was projected to do all sorts of magical things too. Unfortunately that was largely hype, marketing, and possibly blatant lies to win the contract.


The KC-130 is capable of carrier operations. That being said it severely limits the operation of every other aircraft on the ship while it is there. Refueling from the boat is generally accomplished by another aircraft carrying what is referred to as a buddy pack refueling system. It is an over sized fuel tank with the same hose and drogue system as the KC-130, KC-10 and other NATO aerial refuelers.

George Martin

What's the threat this is supposed to meet? The Chinese? We're so far ahead with the F-22 that we really didn't need this.


re; Paul Gracey

Actually Herkybirds can land on carriers. http://www.theaviationzone.com/factsheets/c130_forrestal.asp

However large aircraft with several crewmen aboard can operate effectively after flying 10 hours to reach the operations area; single seat aircraft can not.

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