WASHINGTON A Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter aircraft landed vertically for the first time on Thursday, a bright spot in the Pentagon's priciest arms purchase program, troubled by cost increases and delays.
Test pilot Graham Tomlinson, in a radar-evading F-35B, hovered for a minute then descended to what he called a 95-foot square pad at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, the company said.
The landing demonstrated the ability to operate from a very small area at sea or on shore, Lockheed said.
Tomlinson began the roughly 14-minute flight with an 80-knot short takeoff. The Marine Corps is due to start using the jump-jet version in December 2012.
A conventional F-35 is in early production for the U.S. Air Force, and the Navy will get a model that lands on aircraft carriers. The United States is scheduled to buy more than 2,400 of the supersonic fighters, the backbone of its air combat fleet for coming decades.
Affordability was supposed to be a hallmark of the aircraft, which is also being built for eight overseas partners and other projected foreign buyers, including all those now flying Lockheed's F-16 fighter.
The F-35's average cost has soared 60 percent to 90 percent in real terms beyond what was projected in 2001, when development began, Pentagon officials told Congress last week.
The Air Force and Navy versions are now due to be ready for combat as much as four years after the Marines' F-35B.
Designed primarily to attack ground targets, the aircraft in the test Thursday was powered by a single engine built by the Pratt & Whitney unit of United Technologies Corp.
The eight U.S. co-development partners are Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway.
The vertical landing was "a vivid demonstration of innovative technology that will serve the global security needs of the U.S. and its allies for decades to come," Robert Stevens, Lockheed Martin's chairman and chief executive, said in the statement.
Lockheed has been posting photographs and video of the F-35 testing at:here
(Reporting by Jim Wolf; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)