Winner Take All
All the nail biting, second guessing, and sheer engineering brilliance in the battle to build the better Joint Strike Fighter.
- By Evan Hadingham
- Air & Space magazine, January 2003
Heather Greasley/Lockheed Martin
(Page 3 of 5)
In October 1998, top Boeing designers weighed the advantages and penalties of Pelikan’s design. One argued that it offered greater pitch control at high angles of attack. Then the stealth experts pointed out that two tails would have a lower radar signature than four. “We can’t afford to have any question at all over our signature,” argued Fred May. “I vote for the Pelikan tail.”
But another engineer came up with a surprising objection: Despite the fact that the Pelikan tail would eliminate the need for two control surfaces, it might actually end up heavier. The bigger hydraulic pumps and cylinders needed to operate the larger surfaces would end up adding at least 200 pounds to the design. Meanwhile, team leader Dennis Muilenberg was worried about customer perception. He believed that the JSF office viewed Lockheed’s conventional fourpost tail as a lowrisk approach. Should Boeing also go with a tried-and-true design? “On the other hand,” he added, “if we end up looking like we’re the followers and Lockheed’s the leader, it might be a strategically bad thing.”
Eventually it fell to Muilenberg to break the stalemate. Despite earlier doubts, he concluded, “We need to do something to our configuration that will give us an advantage. I think the Pelikan tail does that. We’re going to have to work the hell out of weight, but I can’t imagine anyone better at doing that than the Boeing team.”
But days later, Muilenberg’s team reversed its decision. Fresh analysis suggested that the weight penalty of the Pelikan tail might be more like 800 or 900 pounds, and this and other factors tipped the balance in favor of a conventional four-post tail.
Back in Seattle, another key decision put an end to George Bible’s agony. After the third thermoplastic failure, he was told to abandon what Boeing had hoped would be a competitive edge over Lockheed, and revert to more conventional—thermoset—material. His exhausted crew cooked up the required wing skins without a hitch. “It’s just a good feeling being done with them,” Bible said as he watched them being loaded on to a C-5 Galaxy. “They were quite a pain.” The Galaxy roared into the sky over Seattle and delivered the wing skins, more or less on time and on budget, to the Boeing assembly line at Palmdale.
While Bible was struggling with his unruly resins, Lockheed faced its ultimate trial by fire. In early 1999, the first of five test lift fans was hoisted onto the giant Pratt & Whitney test rig overlooking the Florida swamps. As the engine roared day and night, test data was e-mailed daily back to Palmdale, where the engineers would compare results with the predictions of their flight control simulators.
Although the constant mechanical glitches that plagued the tests were highly visible to the media, they were never the real threat, according to engineer Scott Winship. “I always had faith we could solve those kinds of problems,” he says. “What I didn’t know was whether we would succeed in integrating the flight controls we needed to make this huge fire-breathing beast behave. And while we were having all these mechanical problems, the flight controls testing kept getting delayed and we had still not done the hundreds of hours of tests we needed to write the code that makes the airplane fly. The program was squeezed—we just couldn’t get enough data for our answers. So the whole schedule started slipping.”
"Home sweet home!" exclaimed Boeing chief test pilot Fred Knox as he clambered into the cockpit. It was shortly before 8 a.m. on September 18, 2000, and on the runway at Palmdale, Boeing’s first demonstrator, the X-32A, was on the brink of its maiden flight. This morning, Knox’s mission was to fly the X-32A, with landing gear down, to Edwards Air Force Base, half an hour away, where it would undergo another five months of flight trials.