The Ultimate Fighter?

With the F-35, Lockheed Martin takes a turn trying to make one combat plane that can do everything.

(Andy Wolfe/Lockheed Martin)
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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.

The fourth-generation F-16, also built by Lockheed, has a cockpit cluttered with an array of multi-function displays, gauges, and more than 100 switches. A major task for its pilot is to simply absorb and react to—“fuse,” in pilot parlance—the blast of information all those screens and dials produce. The pilot must do this while manipulating dozens of switches to tell the sensors what data to provide next…while frequently looking at the head-up display projected on the windscreen to read numbers and symbols conveying vital information, such as altitude, airspeed, and the location of enemy aircraft…while often turning his head to look up, to the sides, and, to the limited extent possible, behind his airplane…while occasionally talking on one or more radios…while streaking through the sky at hundreds of miles an hour using both hands and both feet to control the aircraft…often while wearing night-vision goggles to fly in darkness.

It keeps a pilot busy.

The F-35 cockpit, designed by a team of ex-military aviators led by former Air Force F-16 pilot Mike Skaff, Lockheed’s chief pilot-vehicle interface engineer, is streamlined. “It’s the most naked cockpit we’ve ever built,” says slender, sharp-featured Skaff, who grins as he shows off his team’s creation.

Its dominant feature is the fighter-jet equivalent of a home theater high-definition TV—two 8- by 10-inch screens, nestled together to form an expansive 8- by  20-inch display that spans the cockpit console. The big screen works something like a smart phone. By touching it with a gloved finger, or by using a button on the airplane’s control stick to move a cursor, or in some cases by simply speaking a command, the pilot can call up and organize flight or mission data, drop bombs, fire missiles, or share information with friendly air or ground forces.

Eric Branyan, who led the Lockheed team developing F-35 mission systems before becoming deputy program manager, sums it up this way: “We take all these sensors, put it on an 8-by-20 piece of glass, and put a God’s-eye view in front of that pilot that says ‘Here’s where all the good guys and the bad guys are. Help the good guys, shoot the bad guys.’ ”

Also important is what the cockpit lacks. There aren’t many switches—only about 25 on the console—and there’s no HUD beneath the canopy. HUD information is shown on the inside of the pilot’s helmet visor, an innovation that lets the flier keep track of life-and-death data no matter which way he turns his head. The helmet itself, built by U.S.-Israeli joint venture Vision Systems International in Silicon Valley, is another fifth-generation wonder. Attached to the airplane by a sapling-size cable, the helmet holds two small projectors just above the pilot’s forehead. Besides HUD data, the devices can project onto the pilot’s visor infrared video images gathered by six other cameras embedded in the skin of the airplane at strategic locations. Quilted together to create a single, 360-degree image, the pictures from this Distributed Aperture System, or DAS (pronounced “dass”), give an F-35 pilot the science fiction capability to scan the sky in any direction—even through the bottom of the airplane. “It’s a lot like flying Wonder Woman’s glass airplane when I use that,” Skaff jokes.

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