Lockheed Martin will be sending its X-35 jet into the air about a month later than its rival for the $200 billion contract did. But Lockheed officials said the competition has never been a race to be first.
"We're excited about nearing our flight time. We're not concerned about starting a little bit later. To us it's not a horse race, it's about showing the fly-before-you-buy option," said Lockheed Martin spokesman Kathryn Hayden.
Last week, Lockheed Martin prepared for a series of tests that must be completed before the X-35 can be cleared for takeoff at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
"They're doing final preparations for engine runs and taxi tests prior to flight," company spokeswoman Carolyn Hodge said.
The Joint Strike Fighter is designed to be an all-in-one jet for the U.S. Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps and the British Royal Navy. The Air Force versions are the first to be tested, with both Boeing and Lockheed Martin saying they will have their Navy jets ready within a couple of months.
The first Lockheed test will be flown by Tom Morgenfeld, a 21-year company test pilot from Buffalo, N.Y. He will pilot the aircraft for about 40 hours over several months to test flight controls, propulsion systems, landing gear and flaps.
The company has a second demonstrator aircraft that will be used to test the Navy's requirements, such as the ability to make carrier landings. That version has a larger wing and is expected to begin flight testing in mid-November, although it hasn't begun engine runs.
Boeing has made seven test flights with its JSF demonstrator, the X-32A. The Seattle-based company already has found a hydraulic fluid leak and problems in retracting the landing gear.
The leak was fixed after the maiden flight, and the landing gear has had to stay down for all of the flights while engineers have worked to fix it.
"It's probably that the pressures on the system from the air flow is causing it to react differently than in simulation. That's under study," said Boeing spokesman Randy Harrison.
"It has not had any negative impact on the flight tests â€“ none. We expect it to be resolved within days if not a week or so."
Boeing will use the X-32A demonstrator for the Air Force and Navy tests, and a second aircraft will test fly the short takeoff and vertical landings required by the Marines and the British. That version is scheduled to begin flight tests early next year, Mr. Harrison said.
The goal is to show whether the planes can get off the ground, into the air and back down safely, like any conventional jet.
The plane must also fly slow approaches used during aircraft carrier landings and make short takeoffs, hover like a helicopter and land straight down, as required by the Marines.
Flights are supposed to continue into 2001, when the Pentagon is scheduled to pick a winner.
Any delays mean Lockheed Martin and Boeing are required to spend money to keep their design teams. "It will cost some because you have to keep the teams going," Ms. Hodge said. "It's something the government is looking at."
Mr. Harrison said Boeing is concerned about a delay but is not actively crunching numbers to see the costs involved.
JSF critics say the costs will only mount the longer the selection process is drawn out.
"There is no such thing as a delay that saves money," said Luke Warren, an analyst for the Pentagon watchdog group Council for a Livable World.
"Delays will not help them stay within budget."