The demonstrator/concept vehicles for the next U.S. strike fighter made their first flights last fall when Boeing and Lockheed Martin began test flight programs in California for the X-32 and X-35A Joint Strike Fighters. Boeing’s JSF chief test pilot Fred Knox flew the X-32A on a 20-minute run from Palmdale to Edwards Air Force Base on September 18; Lockheed Martin’s Tom Morganfeld flew the X-35 on the same route on October 24.
The two manufacturers are competing to build a strike fighter that can be used jointly by the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. The winning design is expected to serve the three services as a fighter that can meet the needs of each while reducing costs of manufacture and maintenance by using structures and components common to all versions. Both companies claim their JSF will have roughly 80 percent commonality of airframe and avionics.
The Air Force version will be a conventional takeoff and landing aircraft that will replace the F-16 and A-10 and complement the F-22A Raptor. The Navy wants a carrier-based strike fighter to complement the F/A-18E/F and replace the A-6, which has already left the inventory. The Marines want a short takeoff and vertical landing fighter to replace the AV-8B Harrier and F/A-18 Hornet.
The vehicles that made their first flights were not prototypes of the aircraft the companies propose to build. Boeing calls its version a concept vehicle, while Lockheed Martin refers to its aircraft as a demonstrator. Several versions of the competing vehicles will be built: Boeing’s X-32A will test conventional takeoff and landing design for the Air Force and carrier approach qualities for the Navy. An X-32B, slated to fly in early 2001, will test short takeoff and vertical landing capability. Lockheed Martin’s X-35A is also a conventional takeoff and landing demonstrator; its C model will test carrier qualities, and the modified A model will be redesignated X-35B and will test STOVL performance.
The Department of Defense will select a design in 2001.