Controversial fighter plane hits milestone

The first production model of the F-35 Lightning II, F-35A AF-06 #07-0744, completed its inaugural flight on Feb. 25 from NAS Fort Worth JRB with Lockheed Martin test pilot Bill Gigliotti at the controls. (AGENCY)

The fighter plane at the centre of one of Ottawa's hottest political debates has taken its first test flight over the skies of Texas.

The hour-long flight of the first production model of the Lockheed Martin F-35 II Lightning stealth fighter went off without a hitch, said test pilot Bill Gigliotti.

"The aircraft was rock-solid from takeoff to landing, and successfully completed all the tests we put it through during the flight," Gigliotti said.

The flight was an important developmental milestone for the aircraft that Canada plans to begin using in 2016 to replace its aging CF-18 fleet.

Canada and several other NATO allies have sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into the development of the F-35, a fifth-generation fighter with special stealth technology that makes it difficult for enemy radar to spot it.

Canada has signed on to buy 65 copies of the plane Gigliotti flew on Friday. 
The purchase price for the fleet is about $9 billion over 20 years. A maintenance and parts contract could push that up to $16 billion over 20 years, although the government has not yet confirmed the value of the maintenance contract.

The Liberals want to cancel the purchase agreement, arguing the decision to buy F-35s to replace Canada's fleet of F-18 fighter was done without a competitive bid process, which they say would have pushed costs down.

Canada's role in the future of the F-35 program could be a big issue in the next federal election campaign.

The F-35's advocates in the defence industry and in the Canadian government say it will be the most technologically advanced fighter ever and ensure interoperability between Canada and its chief ally, the United States.

Its detractors say the F-35 stealth technology is not all it's cracked up to be - that stealth technology slows down the plane because it adds weight to the aircraft, and that it is more difficult and awkward to fly than other fighters.

The F-35 that Gigliotti flew from Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base will now head to Edwards Air Force Base in California for developmental testing.

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