Marines taking last steps in preparing F-35 fighters for duty

ABOARD THE USS WASP -- With just weeks left before it is scheduled to go on active duty, the F-35 -- a supersonic jet fighter that can do a vertical landing on deck -- landed aboard the USS Wasp for sea trials. Maj. Brendan Walsh has been flying the F-35 for three years but not, until now, from a ship.

"You don't have much time if something goes wrong so you have to make sure that everything's going well with the airplane," said Walsh. He said it can take off in as little as 350 feet.

The Marines plan to buy 420 F-35s, but just getting the first squadron of ten ready to go on time would mark a major milestone for this most complex of aircraft, which runs on 24 million lines of software code.

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Military officials say the F-35 will be ready for duty in a few weeks.

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"It would take us 30 minutes, sometimes with shutdowns, restarts, just to get the airplane airborne due to just various software glitches," said Maj. Aric Liberman, explaining that those glitches have been fixed. "I mean, nowadays we're up and ready with the aircraft in ten minutes."

But that half-million-dollar helmet, which displays all the data the pilot needs on his visor, still does not work well at night. And when we arrived aboard the Wasp, some 400 miles of the coast of North Carolina, only two of the six F-35s were ready to fly.

Liberman said the readiness rate so far as been "a little bit less than we'd expect."

Tools and spare parts were flown in and the aircraft were soon repaired. But over a two-week period, 15 missions had to be cancelled because of maintenance problems. 106 missions went off as scheduled.

Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, chief of Marine Corps aviation, says they are down to crunch time.

He has been shuttling back and forth between the Pentagon and the Wasp. He is the man who has to make the decision -- is the F-35, the most expensive weapons system ever built, ready to join the fleet?

He was asked what if they don't pull it off?

"We'll pull it off, sir," he responded. "We'll pull it off."

Right now it comes down to this -- can the F35 fly a mission, land on a ship, and be ready to take off again within two hours -- day after day?

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.