Winner Take All

All the nail biting, second guessing, and sheer engineering brilliance in the battle to build the better Joint Strike Fighter.

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Back in Seattle, another key decision put an end to George Bible’s agony. After the third thermoplastic failure, he was told to abandon what Boeing had hoped would be a competitive edge over Lockheed, and revert to more conventional—thermoset—material. His exhausted crew cooked up the required wing skins without a hitch. “It’s just a good feeling being done with them,” Bible said as he watched them being loaded on to a C-5 Galaxy. “They were quite a pain.” The Galaxy roared into the sky over Seattle and delivered the wing skins, more or less on time and on budget, to the Boeing assembly line at Palmdale.

While Bible was struggling with his unruly resins, Lockheed faced its ultimate trial by fire. In early 1999, the first of five test lift fans was hoisted onto the giant Pratt & Whitney test rig overlooking the Florida swamps. As the engine roared day and night, test data was e-mailed daily back to Palmdale, where the engineers would compare results with the predictions of their flight control simulators.

Although the constant mechanical glitches that plagued the tests were highly visible to the media, they were never the real threat, according to engineer Scott Winship. “I always had faith we could solve those kinds of problems,” he says. “What I didn’t know was whether we would succeed in integrating the flight controls we needed to make this huge fire-breathing beast behave. And while we were having all these mechanical problems, the flight controls testing kept getting delayed and we had still not done the hundreds of hours of tests we needed to write the code that makes the airplane fly. The program was squeezed—we just couldn’t get enough data for our answers. So the whole schedule started slipping.”

"Home sweet home!" exclaimed Boeing chief test pilot Fred Knox as he clambered into the cockpit. It was shortly before 8 a.m. on September 18, 2000, and on the runway at Palmdale, Boeing’s first demonstrator, the X-32A, was on the brink of its maiden flight. This morning, Knox’s mission was to fly the X-32A, with landing gear down, to Edwards Air Force Base, half an hour away, where it would undergo another five months of flight trials.

Knox flipped a switch and the engine roared to life. At the edge of the runway, Boeing engineers cheered. “Very shortly after liftoff,” Knox said, “it was absolutely clear to me that I was flying the airplane we had designed, built, and that I had been simulating for several years.”

Dennis O’Donoghue, a second JSF test pilot, following behind Knox in an F/A-18, was in shock. “Fred was flying at military power with no afterburner,” he said. “But he started climbing like a rocket. It was incredible: He was just gone. I had to use full afterburner, and only caught up with him at 10,000 feet.” Although the X-32A sprang a hydraulic leak and was ordered back to Palmdale, the test program was off to an auspicious start.

A month later, Lockheed caught up as its demonstrator, the X-35A, got off the ground. But the most crucial flight trial confronted Lockheed the following summer. Early on Sunday, June 24, 2001, JSF program manager Rick Baker nervously joined the lift fan’s godfather, Paul Bevilaqua, and its two key problem-solvers, Winship and Rezabeck, at the edge of the Palmdale runway. Former Harrier pilot Simon Hargreaves, a British test pilot, was about to nurse the X-35B STOVL version and its lift fan into the air for the first time.

“At the time, we were just supposed to be doing ‘press-ups,’ where Simon was going up to only five feet,” says Baker. “And he did five feet—we watched the wheels come off the ground and my heart started beating faster. Then he went up 10 feet and came down again so we could measure things like fuel temperature and heat. And then he went up and up to 50 feet and he held it. We looked at each other and said, ‘The Skunks did it again!’ and we hugged everybody. That was the real turning point. We knew the magic of the Skunk Works was still there.”

The lift fan’s success dashed Boeing’s hopes of an easy JSF victory. Yet the very same day at the testing base at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, Boeing’s X-32A completed its first hover. As flight testing continued, with Boeing sometimes flying five missions a day and performing nearly flawlessly, the competition remained too close to call. Only a major slip would make one team the obvious winner.

At 1,500 feet over Patuxent River, Dennis O’Donoghue turned the X-32B downwind to prepare for its first vertical landing. As he brought Boeing’s STOVL demonstrator down to a stable hover at around 150 feet, he flicked a switch that turned on the jet screen—a narrow slot under the fuselage that blew cool engine bleed air toward the ground, helping to balance the airplane in hover and prevent the engine from sucking in its own exhaust.

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