The Ultimate Fighter?
With the F-35, Lockheed Martin takes a turn trying to make one combat plane that can do everything.
- By Richard Whittle
- Air & Space magazine, February 2012
Andy Wolfe/Lockheed Martin
(Page 3 of 5)
As different as the STOVL version is from the other F-35s in how it launches and returns, “once they get to the fight, they’re the same,” says Tom Burbage, a former Navy pilot who served as the sole Lockheed manager of the F-35 program from August 2000 until June 2005, when the job was divided and the Fort Worth position Lawson held was created. Now Orlando Carvalho sees to production while Burbage sees to protection—trying to keep the dozens of U.S. and foreign government officials, military officers, and lawmakers with a stake or a say in F-35 decisions informed and on board. “Trying to shepherd the program through all these stakeholders and manage the day-to-day contracts was just too big for one person to do,” Burbage explains.
Keeping the F-35 sold despite its delays and cost overruns has turned out to be what might be called the ultimate challenge, but his personality and background make Burbage suited for the job. At six-foot-four and 220 pounds—a Halloween party costume earned him the radio call sign “Conan” when he was a pilot—he played offensive tackle on the Naval Academy’s football team, so holding the line is an old skill. Burbage flew turboprop E-2 Hawkeye airborne-warning airplanes from carriers in the early 1970s, then became a Navy test pilot. In the Naval Reserve, he flew A-7 attack jets for six years.
Burbage led the company’s F-22 program from 1995 to 1999, taking the Raptor from first flight through initial flight testing. He’d barely settled into his next post, as president of Lockheed’s Marietta, Georgia aircraft plant, when company leaders asked him to head the JSF program. At first, Burbage wasn’t thrilled. With the F-22, he’d had enough long hours and stress to last a lifetime. In the end, he decided he simply couldn’t resist the chance to head up “the biggest thing going” in his line of work: making combat aircraft. Equally important, he adds, was “my pilot brotherhood. I just like being around airplanes, and I like being around guys that fly ’em.”
With nearly innumerable U.S. and international participants, from armed services to government agencies to subcontractors around the globe, the F-35 is one of the most complex projects in the world. Today, by no coincidence, Burbage sits on the board of an Australian organization called the International Centre for Complex Project Management, formed to study why systems engineering tools such as Earned Value Management often prove inadequate in such massive ventures.
Burbage’s approach to the challenge is to nurture personal relationships with as many stakeholders as he can, which means “I spend a lot of time going somewhere and coming back from somewhere.” He jets to and from Washington and around the globe so much, in fact, that he’s racked up more than two million frequent flier miles on American Airlines and Delta both—and doesn’t even fly those carriers on long hauls.
Burbage compares himself to a juggler, then ruefully notes that “the human limit for juggling is 14 objects,” while the armed services he has to deal with alone number 17. Even so, his only real regret seems to be that, because he’s a corporate officer, company policy requires him to retire within a year after he turns 65; that means he must be out by September 2014. One gathers from talking to him that midwifing the births of the F-22 and F-35, two of the most sophisticated flying machines ever built, hasn’t been just a job but a commitment. “I’ve got a lot of my sweat-equity and life and emotion in those two airplanes,” Burbage says.
In fact, it’s been a roller coaster ride. There was the punch to the solar plexus Burbage felt in 2004, when engineers came to tell him company and government weight projections were flawed and the STOVL version of the F-35 was going to be far too heavy to meet its performance requirements. “I didn’t feel like eating much after I heard that,” Burbage recalls. But there was also the emotional high he felt when the first F-35 took flight on December 15, 2006, an event witnessed by thousands of Lockheed employees in Fort Worth. Looking down at the scene from the control tower and listening to test pilot Jon Beasley over the radio as aircraft AA-1 rolled down the runway and rose into the sky, Burbage had a lump in his throat and tears in his eyes. “I want to see this airplane become what I think it can be,” he says.
What the F-35 could be is remarkable, in many ways. The cockpit alone is an engineering marvel and a key difference between the F-35 and fourth-generation fighter aircraft.