Weight Watchers

How a team of engineers and a crash diet saved the Joint Strike Fighter.

The X-35A, built to validate propulsion and flying qualities for the Joint Strike Fighter, takes flight in October 2000. (Lockheed Martin)
Air & Space Magazine

On April 7, 2004, the most expensive, ambitious airplane project in history screeched to a halt. Thousands of Lockheed Martin employees tasked with creating the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter found their daily routines broken by a crisis. It had been quietly building for months as engineers cast wary eyes on the weight projections, particularly for one of the three JSF variants, a short-takeoff/vertical-landing fighter. With each review the problem was becoming more evident: The F-35B STOVL fighter was nearly 3,000 pounds over its projected weight.

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Lockheed declared April 7 “Stand Down Day,” using a military term that signals the grounding of a fleet for an emergency safety review. Anyone working on any part of any of the variants was called in to a meeting and given the grim prognosis—four years into the 12-year, $276 billion development program, all work would stop until the JSF dropped some weight.

In Washington, D.C., program managers in the Pentagon had “a fair number of soul-searching meetings in the Department to see if we’d ever fix the program,” according to Rear Admiral Steven Enewold, at the time the program executive officer at the Joint Program Office (JPO), which manages the JSF effort for the Department of Defense.

“There was a belief we could get a lot of the weight,” he says. “But there was a disbelief we could get it all.” One team of independent reviewers anticipated that at best, only two-thirds of the excess weight could be redesigned out of the aircraft.

Inside Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth, Texas facilities, a squad of 550 engineers was formed to do the liposuction. Most of the weight was in the airframe, but with thousands of extra pounds to account for, the innards of the JSF also had to be redesigned. It was everybody’s problem. Directed by about a dozen team leaders, each plucked from his or her area of expertise (airframe, mission systems, engines, and so on), the engineers called themselves the STOVL Weight Attack Team, or SWAT.

Before the team was formed, the SWAT engineers had been watching the penalties imposed by the extra pounds. The F-35B was busting specs on landing speeds, especially in cases where a pilot returned with a full load of unexpended ordnance.

“There was a lot of agreement that the program was in a critical stage,” says Art Sheridan, the current director of F-35 affordability at Lockheed. With SWAT, “the company was putting its money where its mouth was,” he says.

Sheridan knows the F-35 very well. Hired in 1979 as an aerodynamicist by General Dynamics, he has worked at the Texas plant ever since, eventually becoming chief of all STOVL projects. Since 1995, he has served in a slew of positions with the F-35 development team. He was also responsible for analyzing the X-35 flight test data during the JSF contest with Boeing (see “Winner Take All,” Dec. 2002/Jan. 2003).

In April 2004, Sheridan was named leader of the ad hoc SWAT team. The future of the F-35 program and of Lockheed Martin’s stake in military aviation rested on his slight, stooped shoulders. “I had been very vocal about the weight issue [during 2003],” Sheridan says now, a grin stretching the curved geometry of his ash-white beard. “Maybe the way to get back at me was by making it my problem.”

At 8:15 a.m., a flow OF vehicles and people steadily pours into the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics plant, located just outside Fort Worth in the town of White Settlement. Roughly 16,000 employees here design and assemble some of the world’s most complex aircraft. There is a high ratio of blue jeans to suits. These are not the corporate types of the company’s Bethesda, Maryland headquarters, but the brainy designers and blue-collar assemblers of the defense contractor’s products.

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