How a team of engineers and a crash diet saved the Joint Strike Fighter.
- By Joe Pappalardo
- Air & Space magazine, November 2006
(Page 3 of 8)
Even in a world of precision design tools, weight estimates still depend on data from previous aircraft. That turned out to be a problem as the crowded interior and the demands of the design translated into poundage. “Legacy estimating techniques just don’t work with this family of airplanes,” says R.J. Williams, Lockheed’s vice president of F-35 Air Vehicle Development.
Art Sheridan says that cost, not weight, was the most important measurement during the early history of the program. “The focus was very much on affordability at the time,” he says. “People realized there was a penalty to be paid, and that was included in the weight estimates. It was higher than we thought.”
No matter the reason, when weight became the enemy, the SWAT team concentrated its effort on reducing it, as well as reducing the bureaucratic hoop-jumping that can slow a redesign. “The number one commitment was to remove obstacles and make quick changes,” Sheridan says.
Instead of the typical series of boards that normally reviewed proposed design changes, SWAT consolidated the process into one review panel. Engineers were expected to come in with an idea, face detractors, and accept a decision in one sitting.
“You’re not supposed to come in with a white coat on,” says Sheridan, and suddenly his face and voice become stern, presenting the manner he used to get the job done. “You’re supposed to come in with a way to make it happen.”
An important attitude change was realizing that all weight savings—a pound here or a dozen pounds there—were vital. According to the database of incorporated SWAT changes, the average recommendation averaged only six pounds. But by taking “only” out of engineers’ mindsets, more and more ideas were considered.
Lockheed engineers like Santi Bulnes, of F-35 Mission Systems and a SWAT team leader, were given a free hand to redesign. “They said, ‘Forget what equipment is in the way. Draw it like you want it,’ ” he recalls.
The process also required a change in parochial attitudes and a willingness to put a finished design up for review, SWAT participants say. No one likes his work questioned, but no one wants a redesigned part to fail, possibly costing lives. Due to the interconnected nature of the airplane’s interior, some new designs required changing perfectly sound ones.