The F-35 Lightning II flies with a P-38 Lightning and two P-51 Mustangs at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., in March 2016.

The F-35 Lightning II flies with a P-38 Lightning and two P-51 Mustangs at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., in March 2016. U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Staci Miller

Seeking to Boost Its Public Image, F-35 Joins the Airshow Circuit

Program officials are trying to improve popular perceptions of the late, over-budget Joint Strike Fighter.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter isn’t expected to see combat this year, but Pentagon officials have laid on an intensive schedule of airshows and other events meant to improve the public’s perception of the late and overbudget jet.

Program officials are betting that the F-35 has finally overcome a decade of woes that sent its price tag billions of dollars over budget and made it years late to the battlefield. Now they want to repair the plane’s public image.

“We do have a perception problem and we do have an information gap there,” Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the program manager, told lawmakers Wednesday at a House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee hearing.

Chairman Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, had these feelings: “Obviously, we have not done a very good job of communicating the importance of the F-35 and its capability and why it’s necessary.”

But the plane has more than an image problem; it has real problems. The escape system doesn’t work right, software is still buggy, and its complex logistics system is behind schedule, which could cause the plane to miss the Air Force’s battle-ready date of Aug. 1. The Marines said their F-35s were ready for war last year, but the Air Force has a more demanding set of tests to pass.

Still, many Pentagon officials say the program has turned a corner, declaring that most serious issues are behind them and that fixes are in place for existing problems. The project has largely been on budget and schedule since 2010, production is increasing each year, and the jet’s price tag is shrinking.

But the plane still has a ways to go before it’s ready to handle its entire mission set. Meanwhile, it can’t seem to shake its reputation as the world’s most expensive lemon.

“I have never been associated with a program in my 25-plus years of acquisition where the public perception and the reality are so different,” Bogdan argued to Congress. “Part of that is our problem for not telling the story. But part of it is because the program is so big, that every minor issue becomes a big issue.”

When word surfaced last June that an F-35 lost a dogfight to an old F-16, one of the planes it is supposed to replace, the Internet exploded with criticism. Program officials fired back that the F-35 is designed to spot and shoot down enemy aircraft from far away using special sensors and long-range missiles.

“It sometimes is difficult to explain to the public how air warfare is changing and how it’s not a turn-and-burn airplane that looks really cool at an airshow that’s going to win the fight for the United States when we go into combat in the next 20 or 30 years,” Bogdan said.

Pentagon officials and experts say the F-35 and other stealth planes like the Air Force’s B-21 bomber are needed down the road because older warplanes cannot compete with advanced ground-launched missiles and other weapons being built by China and Russia.

“Our legacy airplanes now and in the future will not survive the threat environments we know we are going to have to face,” Bogdan said. “No matter how much you upgrade them and how much you put into them, eventually, they will not survive.”

The public appears unconvinced. Turner cited a University of Maryland study that found nearly 60 percent of Ohio voters favored upgrading older F-15s and F-16s instead of buying new F-35s.

Bogdan, who has often said that he’s not a salesman for the plane, seems to be changing his tune.

“I think getting out there and telling the story is part of what we need to continue to do,” he said. “I also think we need to continue to base things on fact, and when people out there don’t have the facts, then it’s my job and my team’s job to correct the record for that.”

So F-35s, which are now based at eight U.S. airfields, are hitting the airshow circuit. Over the next nine months, an Air Force F-35 will fly at 12 public events, starting next week at Arizona’s Luke Air Force Base. Other stops will include New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and smaller communities near military bases. Some of the events will pair the fifth-generation fighter with historic warbirds for the fan-thrilling flybys called “Heritage Flights.” There’s even a flashy YouTube video introducing the 11 crew members on the F-35’s Heritage Flight. The new jet won’t be doing any aerobatics, officials said, just flying past the crowd with the likes of P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustangs on its wings.

It will cost the Air Force $345,000 to stand up the Heritage Flight, according to a service spokeswoman at Luke Air Force Base, where the plane is based.

That figure covers travel costs for the crew, but not the jet itself, which consumes some $6,000 per flying hour in fuel and maintenance, according to Maj. Genieve David, a spokeswoman at the Air Force’s Air Combat Command.

The Air Force Heritage Flight Foundation pays for a portion of the flights, she said.

“The F-35 participation comes at a minimal/reduced cost to the taxpayers based on the costs associated with flying hours and where applicable, open house/air show funding,” David said.

The most anticipated public showing will come in July when the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, and Royal Air Force will bring five F-35s to the Farnborough International Airshow and Royal International Air Tattoo in England, one of the largest air shows and aerospace industry events in the world. The jet missed its planned Farnborough debut in 2014 after an engine fire grounded the entire fleet of F-35s.

The Dutch plan to bring their own two F-35s to the Netherlands in June for two weeks “to introduce the airplane to their public, to talk about it and to talk about why the airplane is needed for them,” Bogdan said.

It’s hardly rare for the Air Force to send its newest jets to perform at air shows; service officials say such appearances boost recruitment and public support. This year, they’re also hoping to change the public’s mind.