By Andrea Shalal
ABOARD USS EISENHOWER (Reuters) - Two Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jets wrapped up a second round of successful test flights off the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier on Friday, a key milestone toward operational use of the jets by the U.S. Navy in coming years.
The flight tests took place about 100 miles off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, in crosswinds of about 40 knots, and included the first night flights at sea with a redesigned helmet made by Rockwell Collins Inc and Israel's Elbit Systems.
The high-risk flights also tested the jets' ability to take off with less airspeed, with after-burners and with heavier loads of simulated weapons. During normal F-35C launches, a jet goes from zero to 150 miles per hour, traveling the 310-foot length of the catapult in about two seconds.
The results will set the standards for fleetwide F-35C catapult launch settings for the service life of the aircraft, said Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the $391 billion weapons program, the Pentagon's most expensive arms project.
U.S. Navy Rear Admiral John Haley, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, said developmental testing of the F-35C, the carrier variant of the new stealthy fighter jet, had been "pretty doggone good" compared with earlier aircraft.
“We’re basically two years from being operational,” Haley told reporters aboard the ship known as "Ike," which recently completed a nearly two-year period in dry dock maintenance.
Navy officials said developmental testing of the F-35C is about 80 percent complete, with a third round of even more difficult at-sea testing planned next summer.
The Navy will be the last of the U.S. services to start using the new jets, following the Marine Corps, which declared an initial squadron combat-ready in July, and the Air Force, which is slated to follow suit in August 2016. The Navy is expected to have a first combat-ready squadron in late 2018.
Haley said the F-35 C-model would provide a "huge benefit" to U.S. military commanders in coming years, working in tandem with Boeing Co F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter jets and EA-18G electronic attack planes for years to come.
He said the jets' ability to fuse data from a variety of radars and other sensors, and then share it with ships and other aircraft, would change the way the U.S. Navy fights wars.
"The F-35 is going to bring ... sensors and an ability to guide the fight, whether it's an air-to-ground fight or an air-to-air fight. They’re going to have an ability that’s going to change how we think about getting to the target, delivering weapons and getting out of the target," Haley said.
Navy Commander Tony Wilson, one of five test pilots involved in the tests on the Eisenhower, said he thought last year's first round of tests on the USS Nimitz, and the jets' participation in a recent integrated test with other aircraft, had helped reverse previous lukewarm support for the program.
He said it was also a huge advantage that the new aircraft could easily be upgraded since it is software-based.
"I think the Navy is going to be excited to see the tactical performance of the aircraft," he said.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Leslie Adler)