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)
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Four months later, LeCompte was called to a SWAT board meeting, where senior Lockheed officers said his idea would be included in all three variants. They awarded him $13,000. LeCompte used the money to close on his first home.

He says he also felt the satisfaction of directly contributing to the final design of the 21st century’s first new fighter, which, thanks to him, has a reconfigured power panel, as well as three other improvements he suggested, each of which removed about a pound.

It’s one thing to hear company officials speak of a “change in culture” among staff; it’s another to hear it from a fresh-faced 26-year-old. “People realized a half-pound was worth something,” LeCompte says. “Even today, if you’re working an issue and you mention weight, it gets everyone’s attention.”

The deluge of ideas—more than 2,000 were suggested on Stand Down Day alone—initially overwhelmed Lockheed’s F-35 managers. To smooth the process of the redesign, they created a permanent Weight Improvement Program to assess ideas and pay rewards. Staff ffrom every office became “dieticians,” studying every conceivable part on the aircraft for weight.

Steven Twaddle, a materials engineer, realized that he could reduce the surface area of thousands of nut plates by using a high-strength adhesive, which saved 21.5 pounds. Aircraft performance senior staff engineer Brian Losos, who has worked on the JSF since 1995, came up with an idea to change the landing gear housing. Instead of a single door opening from the side, he suggested a two-door clamshell design. It would increase the weight, but the aerodynamic effect of removing the single dangling door, functioning as a sail in crosswinds, would allow a reduction in the size of the two tail fins. The change garnered him a $15,000 bounty.

By the end of February 2006, Lockheed Martin had paid out more than $1.2 million to employees for ideas. The cost is considered minimal compared to the benefits, says Greg Henderson, the inaugural director of the F-35’s Weight Management and Control office at Lockheed.

Whereas the SWAT team had the chance to reconfigure the entire airplane, “the configuration is now fixed,” Henderson says. “Now we ask: What’s the lightest way to make it? Every hole and flange is looked at.”

Hiring Henderson to oversee the effort, and ultimately making the position permanent and directly accountable to high-level company officials, proved how serious Lockheed Martin believed the weight problem to be. Henderson says a high-level position dedicated solely to weight issues is unique in the industry.

Part of the weight management office’s job is reaching out to suppliers. “Post-SWAT, we have to contend with the milling and grinding,” says Henderson. Experienced structural engineers visit supply shops with ideas on changing designs to cut weight. Subcontractor efforts shaved 586 pounds during SWAT.

Keeping the pounds off requires diligence. The weight control office has to combat “bounce back”—the tendency to put pounds back on after they’ve been lost, a familiar pitfall of many a human diet. “They said it was hard to take thousands of pounds of weight off the aircraft,” Henderson says. “But it was considered impossible to keep it off.

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