Air Force pilots attached to deployable squadrons have started dropping real bombs off of their F-35s during training missions, according to a report posted at CNN.com.
"This is significant because we're building the confidence of our pilots by actually dropping something off the airplane instead of simulating weapon employment," Lt. Col. George Watkins said in an Air Force statement.
The inert precision guided bombs were dropped from airplanes based at Hill Air Force Base in Utah.
The F-35, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, could use whatever good publicity it can manage at this point. The test program has been plagued with failures at every turn, from wrestling with the millions of lines of code needed to make the cockpit suite communicate with the $500,000 helmet the pilot is supposed to wear to having to redesign the tailhook so the airplane will actually catch the wire across the flight deck and stop when trying to land on an aircraft carrier.
The program's original "initial operational capability" or "IOC" date was in 2012, but that goal was missed due to setbacks. The overall program cost is currently at $400 billion, and that's expected to go up to more than $1 trillion over the life of the airplane.
F-35 supporters marvel at the fighter's "fifth generation" capability, which includes radar-evading stealth technology and data sharing between airplanes. Critics say the Joint Strike Fighter is a procurement nightmare that can't match the A-10 as a close air support asset or the F-16 as a dogfighter.