Suite bird takes to the air

An airliner modified by BAE Systems into a flying laboratory for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter completed its maiden flight last week in California.

The Joint Strike Fighter Co-operative Avionics Test Bed, also known as the CAT Bird, is a flying test bed that replicates the F-35 avionics suite.

The CATB will develop and verify the F-35’s capability to collect data from multiple sensors and merge it into a coherent situational awareness display.

The CATB now begins a month of test flights to prove the aerodynamics of the converted 737-300 airliner, an important validation because of modifications to the craft made to house the avionics test requirements.

These include the addition of a nose extension to simulate that of the F-35, a 42ft-long spine on the top, a 10ft ‘canoe’ on the bottom to accommodate electronic equipment, and twin 12ft sensor wings that replicate the leading edge of those on the F-35.

The inside of the plane was also transformed. An F-35 cockpit will allow the sensor inputs to be displayed as they would be in the fighter itself.

The rest of the interior houses equipment racks for the avionics equipment, and 20 workstations for technicians to assess the performance of the avionics.

The maiden flight was the first of about 20 sorties that will comprise CATB’s initial test phase. After conclusion of some additional modification work, and the initial flight test phase, the B-737 CATB will move to its home base and begin test operations at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Fort Worth, Texas.