The Air Force performed its first night flight of the F-35A on March 24 at Eglin AFB, Fla., service Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said March 26. 

The first night flight is a significant step forward for the program as a February 2013 operational utility evaluation report by Defense Department Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) Michael Gilmore said aircraft operating limitations had prohibited flying the aircraft at night or in instrument meteorological conditions where pilots must rely on aircraft instruments. During this week’s House Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing on the Air Force’s fiscal year 2015 budget request, Welsh quoted a note he said was from the squadron commander who flew the first night flight that said his big takeaway was that the Air Force wouldn’t have big issues flying at night.

Gilmore brought up numerous concerns in his report on the F-35A, including the substantial limit of training utility due to limitations, workarounds and flight restrictions in place on the fifth-generation fighter jet at this early stage of its development.

Welsh, testifying alongside Air Force Secretary Deborah James, echoed her remark in that he’s confident the service would reach its F-35A initial operational capability (IOC) goal by 2016. James said the Air Force would make the goal “within reason.” James reiterated that there could be slippage of up to six months on one of the F-35 software development areas, a point raised recently by F-35 program executive officer Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan. Software development has been challenging for the F-35 program office.

Welsh also said the F-35’s distributed aperture system (DAS) and helmet-mounted display, two persistent problems, worked great on the night flight. Though Welsh said the “only issue” the Air Force had was when the squadron commander turned off the DAS, there was a “little bit” of a green glow in the mask that was a “little bit” distracting to the pilot, but Welsh dismissed this as an issue. The AN/AAQ-37 DAS, developed by F-35 subcontractor Northrop Grumman

 [NOC], is a 360-degree, spherical situational awareness system that warns the pilot of incoming aircraft and missile threats as well as providing day/night vision, fire control capability and precision tracking wingmen and friendly aircraft for tactical maneuvering.

The Air Force is also close to finalizing a proposed way forward with the Afghanistan government on training its air force with its Light Air Support aircraft the Air Force recently sold to Afghanistan, James said. The Air Force last year finalized a $355 million deal to sell 20 A-29 Super Tucanos developed by Embraer [ERJ] and sold by Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) to Afghanistan. James said this deal is awaiting final discussion lead by International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and United States Forces-Afghanistan Commander Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford. James also said the Air Force is deciding between training the Afghan pilots in the U.S. or in Afghanistan. SNC is contracted to deliver the first Super Tucano light attack aircraft to Afghanistan by September.

The F-35 is developed by prime contractor Lockheed Martin [LMT] along with subcontractors Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems.