Original PBS Broadcast Date: February 4, 2003
From 1996 to 2001, Boeing and Lockheed Martin produced rival designs and prototypes for the Joint Strike Fighter, a stealthy, affordable combat plane intended for the 21st century needs of the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marines. In "Battle of the X-Planes," NOVA goes behind the scenes to show the world's newest fighter taking shape, as Boeing and Lockheed Martin compete to win the largest contract in military history. NOVA's film crew was part of a small group allowed into both camps, in the first-ever inside look at a Department of Defense weapons competition. The team filmed inside installations where cameras have never been allowed: the famous Skunk Works, where Lockheed Martin designed the celebrated U-2 and SR-71 spy planes, and Boeing's equally hush-hush Phantom Works. The result is a fascinating glimpse of creative minds at work on one of the most difficult and potentially lucrative aeronautical projects ever undertaken, which is expected to earn the winner $200 billion, with the potential to earn up to $1 trillion over the life of the project. Many aviation experts believe the Joint Strike Fighter will be the last manned fighter built by the United States.
The program captures the clandestine world where amazing flying machines are hatched amid freewheeling brainstorming, cost-conscious compromising, and nervous speculation about what the other side has up its sleeve. It also chronicles hair-raising moments inside the cockpit, with a pilot's-eye view of the prototypes in flight.
The Joint Strike Fighter must meet the disparate needs of three different services. For the Air Force: an inexpensive, multi-role stealth fighter to replace the versatile but aging F-16. For the Navy: everything the Air Force gets, but with the durability to withstand operations at sea. For the Marines, the most daunting specs of all: a short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) fighter to support Marine operations virtually anywhere. No other fighter has ever had to serve so many different roles. The goal is to save billions of dollars with a family of aircraft having an overwhelming number of parts and systems in common.
But at the back of everyone's mind is the F-111, the Defense Department's previous foray into fighter commonality, which is widely regarded as a disaster. In the 1960s Defense Secretary Robert McNamara ordered the Air Force and Navy to collaborate on a new fighter-bomber. The severely compromised result left both services dissatisfied. The F-111 was subsequently dropped by the Navy and put into only limited operation by the Air Force. Pentagon managers are determined that things will be different this time.
Lockheed Martin's prototype, the X-35, draws on the company's experience designing the F-22 stealth fighter, which the X-35 resembles. By contrast, Boeing's X-32 has an unconventional appearance that reflects its simpler approach to the STOVL problem. While the Lockheed Martin X-35 has a traditional rear-mounted engine, with a separate lift fan mounted in front for vertical landings, the Boeing X-32 does the entire job with one engine. This power plant is placed in the center of the aircraft, which gives the X-32 its stubby, bat-like look.
The STOVL trials provide by far the most nail-biting moments of flight-testing, because any flaws in performance can send the plane plunging like a brick. But there are plenty of other dramatic moments, as the X-Planes battle it out for leadership in the fighter aircraft industry and the right to rule the skies wherever wars are fought.
RADIO: Three, two, one, down.
EDWARD C. "PETE" ALDRIDGE (Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics): We're here today to announce the largest acquisition program in the history of the Department of Defense.
RADIO: Roger, copy that.
EDWARD C. "PETE" ALDRIDGE: The Joint Strike Fighter.
CONTROL: Just for the record, pilot, yeah? You are my hero.
NARRATOR: In the skies over the Mojave Desert a battle of X-planes has begun.
CREW MEMBER: That looks good.
NARRATOR: Over the next year, two different planes will take to the skies again and again on a relentless quest to be crowned the fighter of the future, perhaps the last manned fighter the U.S. will ever build.
FRED KNOX (Chief Test Pilot, The Boeing Company): It smoothes out beautifully.
TOM MORGENFELD (Chief Test Pilot, Lockheed Martin): Woohoo! This is fun.
RICK REZABEK (Chief Engineer, Lockheed Martin): God, it looked so awesome.
TOM MORGENFELD: It felt great.
RICK REZABEK: We're going to fly the shit out of this airplane and just kick ass every day. That's what it's all about.
NARRATOR: It's all part of a top-secret competition, locking two of America's aerospace giants in a furious engineering dogfight to the death.
GRAHAM WARWICK (Writer, Flight International): You couldn't have a more interesting competition—two very different companies, two very different designs, conservative heavyweight against a radical newcomer.
DENNIS MUILENBURG (Engineer, The Boeing Company): We've got a hell of a smart team, so lets go figure out how to make it work.
RICK REZABEK: There's never any real time to relax.
SCOTT WINSHIP: Would I like to be farther ahead? Yes. Would I like to be further done? Yes.
DENNIS O'DONOGHUE : I think we truly believe we've got the right vehicle for the customer.
WALT CANNON (Flight Test Engineer, The Boeing Company): It's starting to look like an airplane, that's what really neat about it.
ANDY BALOUGH (Boeing): I see our future contract.
WALT CANNON: Well, that, too.
NARRATOR: Not just any contract, but the most lucrative contract in military history, at least 200 billion dollars.
FRED KNOX: And we're flying.
NARRATOR: And the winner won't be just any fighter. It will need to land on a carrier, evade enemy radar, hover like a helicopter. But trying to build a fighter that can do all three, it's a tremendous challenge. It's not a natural thing for a jet airplane to do.
SCOTT WINSHIP (Engineer, Lockheed Martin): Come on, Simon.
NARRATOR: Experimental new designs come with their share of risks and failures. But now the U.S. military desperately wants a winner, claiming that aging fighters and shrinking budgets threaten to undermine its command of the skies.
Will a one-size-fits-all fighter, a Joint Strike Fighter, work for the Air Force, the Navy, the Marines? Will it rescue them from the death spiral of defense costs?
With unprecedented access from the Department of Defense, NOVA's cameras take you into the U.S. military's most classified facilities from the beginning through repeated trial and error.
GERRY CLAUSIER: Talk to me. Do you want me to reset or slow?
ENGINEER: We're recommending we abort.
MAJOR GENERAL MICHAEL HOUGH (Joint Strike Fighter Program Director, 1999-2001): The original design wasn't going to hack it.
MARK MAGNUSSEN: How much effort is ahead of us to make it work?
NARRATOR: Watch two teams struggle to get their daring ideas off the drawing board and into the air.
EDWARD C. "PETE" ALDRIDGE: The Joint Strike Fighter will be the world's premiere strike platform. With the decision to proceed now made, it is now appropriate to announce the winner of the Joint Strike Fighter competition.
NARRATOR: In the end, only one winner takes all—in The Battle of the X-Planes, up next on NOVA.
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NARRATOR: Inside this bag is the future of American fighter power.
MAJOR GENERAL MICHAEL HOUGH: There will probably never, ever be another program as complex as this, or as big as this when you start talking about dollars.
NARRATOR: It's called the Joint Strike Fighter Program. For five years the JSF has held a competition between two titans of aerospace to see who will build the next generation fighter. It's a prize worth up to 200 billion dollars, and the winner's name is in the bag.
JAY MILLER (Aviation Writer/Historian): The winner of the JSF competition is going to dominate the fighter aircraft market, not only here in the United States, but worldwide.
NARRATOR: Fasten your seatbelt and put up your tray table. NOVA and the Department of Defense have cleared you to enter places where cameras have never gone before, from secret installations to the cockpits of the latest experimental fighters. You've landed in the classified world of the X-planes—both hi-tech and handcrafted—where pilots fly into the unknown with just you by their side.
This is the battle to build the fighter of the 21st century. In the first strike in the war on terror, fighters are the front-line warriors. Navy fighters join squadrons from the Air Force and the Marines to attack Taliban and Al Qaeda positions in Afghanistan.
These aircraft play a key role in routing the enemy just as they did in the Gulf War in the early 1990s. In fact, some of the fighters are literally the same planes built in the '80s, designed in the '70s to fulfill Cold War objectives from the '60s. The most important weapon in America's arsenal is based on ideas almost a half-century old.
MICHAEL HOUGH: Our airplanes, they're wearing out. They're tired. Thirty year airplane's still a great airplane, serves its purposes well, but it's, it's old.
GRAHAM WARWICK: These aircraft, in the future battlefield they're going to be a bit like dinosaurs, not just in their sort of physical age, but their electronic capability. They may not be survivable.
REAR ADMIRAL CRAIG STEIDLE (Joint Strike Fighter Program Director, 1995-1997): We now have to go to higher altitude instead of lower altitude. We need to make ourselves as small as possible from a radar perspective. We have to do the same job, but the world has changed.
NARRATOR: Almost all of America's fighters will one day wind up here at the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. Old generals may fade away, but old fighters are cannibalized for parts.
The Air Force still relies on thousands of these, the venerable F-16, but the F-16 is past its prime. In the age of stealth, this fighter shows up on radar the size of a small flying house.
This is an F-18, the mainstay of the Navy, but Navy planes get old fast. The controlled crash known as a carrier landing and the rapid acceleration of a catapult launch will eventually create irreparable stress fractures and send them all here.
This is the subsonic AV-8 Harrier Jump Jet, flown by the Marines. While it remains the only successful vertical landing fighter, it dates back to the British invasion of America by the Beatles. Though later refined by McDonnell Douglas, by any measure the Harrier is ready for retirement.
The goal of the Joint Strike Fighter program is to replace all of these, the F-16, the F-18 and even the vertically landing Harrier.
MICHAEL HOUGH: It is an absolute vital necessity to have, not only a replacement airplane for the older airplanes, but to have an airplane that is a 21st century airplane to meet the needs for tomorrow.
NARRATOR: The plane for the 21st century, at least for the Air Force, would appear to be already here: the new F-22 Raptor, scheduled for deployment in 2005. The Raptor is the ultimate fighter, so stealthy its radar signature isn't much bigger than a bird. And it can fly at supersonic speeds longer than any other fighter, and that means it can strike deeply and invisibly at an opponent.
But the Raptor has a huge vulnerability that the JSF program must overcome: a giant price tag. Each plane costs about 100 million dollars.
BILL SWEETMAN (Aerospace Writer): The F-22 is a spectacular airplane. The problem is it's expensive. And that means the Air Force will never really have enough of them to attack the many and varied small and large targets that make up the modern battlefield.
NARRATOR: The F-22 is just the latest example of a trend that goes back decades. Each new generation of fighters costs more than the last, so fewer are purchased—ever more expensive fighters in ever decreasing numbers. In defense circles, that's known as the death spiral.
CURTIS PEEBLES (Aviation Writer/Historian): Where the death spiral could lead is the prediction that in the year 2054, the U.S. defense budget will only buy one airplane. So the Air Force uses the airplane in the morning, the Navy uses it in the evening, and the Marines, unfortunately, only get to use it every leap year on the extra day.
NARRATOR: So that is the JSF's mission impossible—to break the death spiral by coming up with a new fighter that costs a third of an F-22, replaces all of these, and meets the needs of the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines.
MICHAEL HOUGH: They absolutely said, "You'll never pull this off—impossible."
NARRATOR: In the past, the fiercely independent services would have fought for their own weapons programs. In the sixties, when the cost-cutting Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, forced the Navy and Air Force to use the same plane, the F-111, the joint program was a resounding flop. But these days, with smaller post-Cold-War budgets, the spreadsheet is mightier than the sword.
MAJOR GENERAL GEORGE MUELLNER (Joint Strike Force Program Director, 1993-1995): The Joint Strike Fighter program was a huge leap of faith for the services. The enabler, though, was they didn't have any choice. They knew that they had to modernize their fighter force structure, and the funds were not available to do that.
NARRATOR: With no other options, the effort to design the Joint Strike Fighter begins and almost immediately there's disagreement. The services can't even agree on the number of engines. The Navy's F-18 Hornet has two engines for safety. If one goes out, you don't have to ditch. But two engines are a deal-killer for the Marines because of their weight.
CRAIG STEIDLE: We cannot build, today, a two-engine, vertical short takeoff landing airplane. So the Navy wanted two engines, the Marine Corp had to have a single engine, and the Air Force wanted a single engine, because it was much more affordable and they don't have...they're not out over the ocean at night all by themselves like we are.
NARRATOR: The decision hinges on how dependable one engine can be.
RADIO VOICE: Steady state 255 started.
NARRATOR: After talking with jet manufacturers, the JSF team ramps up the specs for engine reliability. Rear Admiral Steidle convinces a reluctant Navy to go with just one.
CRAIG STEIDLE: That was another piece that was necessary to pull the program together, because without that we could not have a common production line.
GRAHAM WARWICK: I think the effort that's gone on here to create a joint requirement is astounding. And it's really...it's what's allowed the program to get where it is. And it will be what allows the program to continue, because if the services keep saying, "We all agree what we want, and we want this aircraft," then it will happen.
NARRATOR: Even with everyone on board, there's rough air ahead.
BILL SWEETMAN: We know how to build a stealth fighter. We know how to build a long-range agile fighter. We may even have a good way of building a fighter that can land and take off vertically. But trying to build a fighter that can do all three is very, very difficult.
NARRATOR: The Pentagon spent over three billion dollars in research to see if it was possible, and the answer? Sort of.
PAUL KAMINSKI (Department of Defense): The airplanes are not the same aircraft, but the building blocks are the same building blocks, for the most part: same engine, same major avionics. In fact, it's not important to have every piece...part...the same, but the expensive parts or modules...Through the life cycle of the aircraft there was the potential to save 60 billion dollars. And that's a lot of money in anybody's calculus, even in the Department of Defense.
NARRATOR: With the services in agreement about the requirements, the Joint Strike Fighter program launches a competition for innovative designs for the new affordable family of fighters. Like a high-stakes game show, only two contractors can make it to the final round and build test planes.
With billions on the line, U.S. defense contractors hold their breath as the Pentagon announces the two finalists for "Who Wants to Build the Next Generation Fighter?"
PERRY: These contractors are Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
NARRATOR: The announcement sends shockwaves through the aerospace industry, dealing a deathblow to one of the most respected names in aviation. McDonnell Douglas, a company with a fighter legacy that seemed to guarantee a spot in the final round, doesn't make the cut. The impact for the company and its employees is devastating. Within two years, McDonnell Douglas is sold to Boeing, one of the JSF winners.
A world leader in commercial jets, the Seattle-based company is seen as an unlikely contender in a fighter battle, for good reason. Boeing's last fighter was built in the 1930s—the P-26 Peashooter, a fighter from the age before jets, before even a closed cockpit.
PHIL CONDIT (Chief Executive Officer, The Boeing Company): Boeing hadn't built a fighter in a long time, and I think early on Boeing was considered, literally, a dark horse in this competition.
NARRATOR: But the Boeing acquisition of McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the Navy's F-18 and the Marine's Harrier, makes a dark horse an even bet.
BILL SWEETMAN: By acquiring McDonnell Douglas, Boeing suddenly moves from becoming the least experienced JSF team to possibly the most experienced.
PHIL CONDIT: ...clearly leveled the playing field.
FRANK STATKUS (Program Manager, The Boeing Company): I'm in this job to win, and going back to...
NARRATOR: Boeing's JSF effort is lead by Frank Statkus, an engineer and thirty-year company man. When you shoulder the weight of a potential 200 billion-dollar contract, stress comes with the job.
FRANK STATKUS: A year ago I had hair, and it was dark. And now I have less of it, and it's a race to see what goes gray versus goes away.
NARRATOR: While Statkus runs the project, he isn't the creator of Boeing's design. These days with the complexity of fighters, no single person can claim that role.
JAY MILLER: State-of-the-art fighters, they're all designed now by computers, and it's, and it's...these are big teams of engineers who sit down, you know, and do these CAD/CAM drawings. It is very tough to find, you know, one person who can sit there and tell you that, "I designed that airplane."
NARRATOR: At the heart of the Boeing design for the JSF is a large delta, or triangular wing.
BILL SWEETMAN: It's an unusual approach, but the big advantages of that are that it's structurally simple and that it contains an enormous amount of fuel.
NARRATOR: Though there hasn't been an American fighter built with a delta wing since the '60s, the design has its advantages. The fastest jet ever to fly, the SR-71 Blackbird has a delta wing because it decreases drag at supersonic speeds. The Space shuttle is also built around one because it provides great lift.
But neither the Shuttle nor the SR-71 are exactly agile. A delta design pays a price in speed when executing turns, and the control surfaces near the tail don't have the leverage to turn the plane sharply.
European designers have overcome these handicaps in their new fighter, the Typhoon, by adding canards near the front of the plane. But in the U.S., delta fighters have been out of favor for decades, until the JSF picked the Boeing design as a finalist.
Why the new interest? Deltas can be cheap to build.
BILL SWEETMAN: Boeing took a step back and said "What makes airplanes expensive? How can we leave it out?" And they got a very, very simple design.
FRANK STATKUS: Boeing's expertise in wings has kind of taken a different tack. Our engineers have chosen to build this wing as one piece from tip to tip. We have always studied the idea of building a one-piece wing and attaching the fuselage to the wing. And so this time we had an opportunity to really try it.
NARRATOR: Boeing has taken to heart the JSF concept, meeting the needs of the Air Force, Navy and Marines through a versatile common design. And it even accommodates the biggest JSF challenge, landing like a Harrier.
While it gets a bad rap for safety, the Harrier is no doubt the most adaptable fighter ever built. Matching its capabilities will drive many of the design decisions of the competition.
When fully loaded with fuel and bombs, a Harrier takes off in as little as 500 feet, a third of that needed by most fighters. That short takeoff distance makes many roads into potential runways. After an attack, it returns, a lighter fighter ready to execute its trademark Buck Rogers move.
A Harrier hovers using rotating nozzles that direct engine exhaust downward. This mode of flight, called direct lift, demands an enormous amount of power, and it's dangerous. Before computer control, balancing a Harrier on its own engine thrust was like trying to sit on a geyser. Even today, its accident rate is four times that of a Navy Hornet.
But through their flexibility, Harriers have proven their value. In fact, in the Gulf War, Harriers flew more missions than any other kind of fighter. For the British, the Harrier remains essential. British aircraft carriers are smaller than their American counterparts. The Harrier's short takeoff ability overcomes the problem and creates a portable fighter force.
GRAHAM WARWICK: The Harrier has allowed the U.K., basically, to be where it couldn't be. The Falklands is a classic example. I mean, without the Harrier, we could not have defended the Falklands. We couldn't have got anybody...any aircraft down there. But the ability to put a reasonably competent combat aircraft onto a deck and get it down there, and then fight, was just the difference between success and failure.
NARRATOR: But the Harrier can't fly supersonic, a serious limitation in a modern fighter.
SIMON HARGREAVES (B.A.E. Test Pilot, Lockheed Martin): In terms of its turn performance, its range and endurance, and its maximum speed, whichever metric you want to look at, it fairs unfavorably with any modern airplane.
NARRATOR: The British search for a replacement Harrier brings them to the JSF table. They've become full partners. It's the first time a foreign government has been included in an American fighter development program.
The addition of the British only heightens what many consider the central technical challenge of the JSF competition, landing the fighter vertically. Alternatives to the Harrier's direct lift system have been studied by both contractors, but Boeing has come to a surprising conclusion.
FRANK STATKUS: Over the years, all contractors have looked at all of these various lift methods, and the least impact to the design always has been direct lift.
GRAHAM WARWICK: The Boeing lift system is basically the modern version of the Harrier, taking the engine thrust and putting it through a pair of nozzles that direct it downwards. The advantage that Boeing has is that you basically strap on the lift module around the engine. So the changes are pretty minimal.
NARRATOR: The fewer the changes between the Marine fighter and the other versions, the better the bottom line. Boeing has made an ally of affordability.
FRANK STATKUS: So, I believe when we're all finished doing a flight test, we'll have proven that direct lift offers the absolute greatest affordability because of the greatest commonality.
NARRATOR: While direct lift is affordable, other parts of the plane must pay a price. For balance during hover, the engine must be in the middle, and that leads to a gaping inlet to feed it air. To some, Boeing has designed a plane only its mother could love.
BILL SWEETMAN: It's a strange looking airplane. It's short. It's squat. The engine's in the front, not the back. It has this huge air inlet in front that reminds me of a hippopotamus.
GRAHAM WARWICK: This is a fighter competition not a beauty pageant, but there is an adage in aerospace that if it looks right, it flies right, and appearance may be a deciding factor.
NARRATOR: Appearance aside, Boeing's proposal is a cunning entry for the JSF competition. Throwing over fighter tradition, the company delivers a radical but simple design that promises to be cheap to build. Boeing's ready to give its aerospace opponent a flight to the finish.
DENNIS MUILENBURG (Engineer, The Boeing Company): When I daydream, I see it hovering; I see it taking off from airfields; I see it operating around a ship. And sometimes I even see it shooting down the Lockheed airplane.
NARRATOR: "Only in your dreams," is the likely response of Lockheed Martin, America's largest defense contractor. For decades, in this secret facility in California, the legendary Skunk Works, Lockheed has designed and built aircraft that have blown through the boundaries of imagination.
BILL SWEETMAN: The Lockheed's Skunk Works' reputation is founded on its ability to put together a small team of very motivated people, get everybody else out of the way, and leave them to solve a problem that everybody else thinks can't be solved.
RICK REZABEK: The whole history of this place has been, "There is nothing that we can't do, there is no project that we can't accomplish." There's a huge amount of pride, of, "We can do anything."
NARRATOR: By the time Lockheed earns its place in the final JSF competition, Chief Engineer Rick Rezabek and his team have already spent five years designing their fighter. Now they must build a pair of test planes in just two. If Lockheed wins, their work will live on for decades. If it loses...
RICK REZABEK: The stakes are horrendous on this. This program will end up running from today out through the year 2050, long after my retirement. The performance of this team and the decision making that goes on during these next two years are very key.
NARRATOR: The mystique of the Skunk Works remains unrivalled in aviation. It's the birthplace of America's first operational jet fighter, the P-80. In the '50s and '60s, this covert design house created the ultimate spy planes for the CIA: the high flying U-2 and the high velocity SR-71 Blackbird.
Later, for the Air Force, it built the F-117 Nighthawk, the first stealth fighter. Unveiled to the public during the Gulf War, the Nighthawk was the only U.S. aircraft to strike targets in downtown Baghdad. The image of anti-aircraft guns aimlessly blazing away at invisible attackers is a surreal salute to its success and that of the Skunk Works.
BILL SWEETMAN: They conducted many of their most advance programs in complete secrecy, such that nobody else in the world even had a clue what they were up to.
It's got to be very, very scary going up against those guys.
NARRATOR: The F-117 sacrifices speed and handling for stealth. It's been superseded by the current gold standard of American fighters, the F-22 Raptor, built by Lockheed. While very expensive and not the all-in-one fighter for the JSF, the Raptor provides a wealth of proven design ideas, including a radical new shape for stealth.
It's no surprise the Lockheed design for the JSF inherits the Raptor's contours. Built around one common airframe, Lockheed's proposed fighter is modified for each service. Most visibly the Navy model has a larger wing and tail for carrier landings.
The exterior design of Lockheed's fighter holds few surprises. On the surface, it looks like the company doesn't want to gamble. It's on the inside, for the Marines vertical-landing requirement, that Lockheed's bet the farm. The company's gone with a daring new propulsion system known as a lift fan.
RICK REZABEK: The lift fan has been an engineering challenge, because there has not been a lift fan built before.
NARRATOR: In the lift fan design, the engine sits in the usual fighter position in the tail. A drive shaft connects it to a large fan placed behind the pilot. To hover, engine exhaust is directed downward, but the fan is also engaged, taking in air from above the plane and blowing it out below. That creates two balanced sources of thrust, potentially a more powerful and stable arrangement than the Boeing solution. But to accomplish this feat, the drive shaft must be spun at an incredible rate.
RICK REZABEK: Think of taking the propulsion system in a Navy Destroyer, shrinking that down into a smaller package, putting it into a jet fighter airplane.
NARRATOR: It's a technological challenge in the tradition of the Skunk Works. If successful, the lift fan will be revolutionary, but on the drawing boards, it doesn't blow away its critics.
GRAHAM WARWICK: It's a very clever solution, but it's got gears and bearings and a lot of moving parts. And in an operational airplane, you've got to make sure they work 100 percent of the time. If you're a pilot hovering at 50 feet and one of those parts fails, it's going to spoil your day.
NARRATOR: Despite its complexity, the lift fan offers another benefit, invisible to the JSF's sensors and test equipment but plain to the naked eye: aesthetics.
RICK REZABEK: You can look at the Lockheed Martin airplane and say, that looks like what I would expect a modern, high performance, high capable jet fighter to look like. You look at the Boeing airplane and the general reaction is, "I don't get it."
NARRATOR: Lockheed will build its test planes the same way it's built its successful prototypes of the past, as hand-crafted machines, here in the Skunk Works.
This facility provides a well-worn path to winning the JSF competition. Lockheed will try to triumph through daring new technology, while Boeing tries to win with a bold cost-saving design combined with manufacturing know-how second to none.
GRAHAM WARWICK: You couldn't have a more interesting competition—two very different companies, two very different designs, a conservative heavyweight against a radical newcomer. If Lockheed wins, it continues its decades of fighter manufacturing. If Boeing wins, it could go on to dominate the fighter market like it dominates the airliner market.
SAM WILSON (Joint Strike Fighter Engineer, NASA): I think we will look back at this time, at this competition between Boeing and Lockheed, and I think it will be remembered as the great fighter war.
NARRATOR: The next battle of the fighter war will feature close combat. Less than a mile away from the Skunk Works is Boeing's top-secret complex, the Phantom Works.
In these two classified installations, the JSF competition is ready for takeoff. The schedule will be fierce by aerospace standards: in 24 months and on a budget of a billion dollars, each company must build and fly not one, but two experimental planes.
Adding to the tension, Boeing and Lockheed will remain in the dark about each other's progress. NOVA is among the select few cleared to enter both facilities, its footage locked away each night by security personnel.
Boeing may not have built a fighter since the 1930s, but from day one the company rolls out innovations to simplify the job. This scaffolding holds the parts as they arrive. The team uses lasers to position each component precisely in three-dimensional space without having to wait for surrounding pieces.
The parts themselves are designed so precisely that they fit together like puzzle pieces with hardly any adjustment. Techniques like this lead Boeing to claim it can reduce assembly costs by as much as 75 percent.
BILL SWEETMAN: It's a very interesting process, very new. Boeing's ability to demonstrate how the airplane is put together is certainly a plus, and that will weigh in their favor.
NARRATOR: The frame for the single massive delta wing, the heart of the Boeing design, is already in the works. But the skin that will cover it is being cooked up over a thousand miles away at Boeing's headquarters in Seattle.
Engineer George Bible has spent the last year experimenting with a revolutionary material for the surface of the wings. It's a resin and carbon fiber mix called "thermoplastic." In small quantities, it's been used on fighters before, but no one has ever tried to create anything as large as a 30-foot wing skin.
GEORGE BIBLE (Manufacturing Engineer, The Boeing Company): It's very challenging. We have no time or schedule to design something else, so we, we have to make it work the first shot.
NARRATOR: Thermoplastic wings will be lighter and more durable than conventional wings. There may even be other undiscovered benefits, according to another engineer who first experimented with the material in the '80s, Frank Statkus.
FRANK STATKUS: I personally would love to have thermoplastics on this airplane, because I know that there's value in the future. Even though I can't tell you in all the areas where we might find that value, I do know it's there.
NARRATOR: The future in a word: thermoplastics.
But right now, George Bible needs to solve some pressing problems. Making thermoplastic begins with these sheets of graphite, also known as carbon fiber, the same lightweight material used in fishing rods and tennis rackets. For the wing, it's laid down up to 90 layers deep on top of a giant metal mold or tool.
GEORGE BIBLE: We take layers of these graphite fibers and set them on top of each other, and then we put the resin in between to hold them together.
NARRATOR: After three weeks of lay-up, the wing skin is tightly wrapped in protective bags, ready for the next step, a massive oven called the autoclave. The huge chamber acts like a pressure cooker.
GEORGE BIBLE: The autoclave, for me, is always the most stressful part. You have nightmares at night thinking about all of the terrible things your autoclave could do to it.
NARRATOR: First, all oxygen will be removed to prevent a cataclysmic explosion. Then, with the wing heated to the melting point of lead, nitrogen will be pumped in, raising the pressure and exerting tons of force upon the thermoplastic, forcing the fibers to blend with the resin. In short, this is literally hell on earth.
For the next 30 hours, George Bible will hold his breath, until the cooked skin from the autoclave and a perfectly formed wing skin is revealed.
GEORGE BIBLE: Oh, she looks beautiful doesn't she? Looks good, looks very good.
NARRATOR: But this skin is only the first. Boeing will need three more, one for each side of its two delta-winged X-planes. And although Bible is elated at his success, he knows that the next skin, for the lower wing, will be far trickier. It involves a more complex curved shape.
And, in fact, when the next skin emerges from the autoclave, the first signs are ominous. Creases and folds on the surface hint at hidden structural flaws.
GEORGE BIBLE: Man, that does not look good, those wrinkles. I'm afraid we're dead in the water.
NARRATOR: An instrument scans the surface of the panel using water and sound waves to probe for air pockets that could fatally weaken the wing.
GEORGE BIBLE: When we have a gap in the plies, the sound will not transmit through there well.
NARRATOR: George Bible's worst fears are confirmed. The skin is riddled with defects.
GEORGE BIBLE: Right now I'm just, just exhausted. We can't get a break, I mean it's just downhill. So we'll have to do what we have to do to get a panel down to Palmdale as fast as we can.
NARRATOR: After hundreds of hours of work, the wing skin is worthless. With the first wing frame nearing completion down in Palmdale, Bible's team and its bold experiment are simply running out of time.
Lockheed is facing a crisis of its own. The problem that has brought its entire assembly program to a grinding halt hinges on the hold up of a single crucial part.
RICK REZABEK: We can have 99 percent of everything it takes to assemble the airplane, but if there's one part that hasn't been delivered yet, and it's buried somewhere in the middle of the aircraft, you have to wait on the assembly work until that actually shows up.
NARRATOR: Like Boeing, Lockheed engineers have tried to save money by reducing the number of parts needed to build the plane. One part in particular, bulkhead 270, has ended up especially complicated. It will join the front of the plane, including the cockpit, to the fuselage.
As a key piece holding the plane together, it's made of the metal alloy titanium. The combination of strength and lightness make it a natural choice for the bulkhead. But nobody at the Skunk Works had anticipated how hard it would be to carve such a complicated piece out of this super hard metal.
Machining the 300-pound Lockheed part means whittling away at a solid five-ton slab and the drills running 24 hours a day, using diamond bit saws and a special lubricant to reduce heat.
The pressure to get the Bulkhead done is enormous, but so is the price of any mistake.
DORIAN RACEY (Machinist, Lockheed Martin): If this part fails, it could almost ultimately be the end of our competition with Boeing in the JSF program. I mean it would really set us back.
NARRATOR: On top of the crisis on the shop floor, bad money management threatens to get Lockheed fired from the competition. In a program in large part about affordability, the company admits it's 100 million dollars over budget, Lockheed blames part of the overrun on a 30-million-dollar accounting error.
RICK BAKER (Vice President, Tactical Aircraft, Lockheed Martin): In essence what it was is...we were writing checks without going back into the check register is what it amounted to.
MICHAEL HOUGH: Lockheed, yes, had a problem in the subcontractor management business in their manufacturing end at Palmdale. It wasn't discovered until late, very unfortunate, very disappointing. And the lesson there is, "Take nothing for granted."
NARRATOR: It's a make or break point in the program. Under a powerful escape clause, the government can end the competition and award the fighter contract to Boeing. In the first real test of the military's commitment to fiscal limits, the JSF lets Lockheed off the hook. They're saved by the growing number of international customers now lining up to buy the Joint Strike Fighter.
MICHAEL HOUGH: We've got Canadians, we've got Italians, we've got Danes, we've got Dutch. We've got a little bit of everybody. It ensures that for tomorrow, in coalition warfare, we've got partners with the same capability to fight the same wars as we do.
NARRATOR: Ending the competition early would be a domestic and diplomatic debacle.
JAY MILLER: The government realizes that this program is so big, and so influential on a national, and in fact an international level, that their best bet is effectively to sweep this anomaly under the carpet. Let's forget about it, and let's move on, and let's work under the assumption that Lockheed has learned a lesson and they won't let this happen again.
MICHAEL HOUGH: Well, as disappointing as that was, the silver lining there is that we're doing business a lot, lot better and we'll continue for the future.
NARRATOR: In the end, Lockheed gets slapped on the wrist for bad budget controls and presses on with the program, nearly a year and a half behind schedule.
ED BEURER (Assembly Manager, Lockheed Martin): We can't let one minute go by without paying attention to something out on the floor and getting it done. We can't be slackers anymore.
NARRATOR: But back at Boeing, it's hardly been smooth sailing. The latest results from computer simulations are pointing to an alarming conclusion. Boeing's entire delta wing design may be fundamentally flawed.
The Navy has refined its requirements and wants a more maneuverable plane that can carry more weapons. Boeing's delta wing design is now seriously overweight. Months into building the test planes, Boeing's lead engineers conclude that the only way to lose the pounds is to abandon the delta and come up with a new wing and tail design.
DENNIS MUILENBURG: We are at a point in the process here where we need to make a decision on the tail. I think we're really struggling with which way to go.
NARRATOR: An engineering team led by Dennis Muilenburg must come up with a new tail design that will work on a reconfigured fighter. The conventional choice is called a four poster for its four control surfaces, the tail design for all modern U.S. fighters, including Lockheed's Raptor and its proposed JSF fighter.
But there is an experimental alternative, a novel two-post tail with just two angled control surfaces. The Pelikan tail is named after its inventor, an engineer inherited from McDonnell Douglas, Ralph Pelikan. He argues its merits.
RALPH PELIKAN (Engineer, The Boeing Company): Sure I understand you're all nervous about this new concept. I think it can be done.
NARRATOR: Proponents of the Pelikan tail argue that the design is less visible to enemy radar. In other words, it has a smaller stealth signature. For Boeing, this is an important plus, since Lockheed is the originator and acknowledged master of stealth technology.
FRED MAY: We can't afford to have any question at all over our signature and whether we leave a signature.
MARK MAGNUSSEN: I don't think that we really know enough about the Pelikan tail. We think we can make it work, but how much effort is ahead of us to make it work?
NARRATOR: Those supporting the traditional four post tail argue it's a known quantity. The word on the street is that the JSF program managers favor it for the same reason.
DENNIS MUILENBURG: There's a slight benefit, from a strategy standpoint, that we can negate a perceived Lockheed advantage by going to a four poster. On the other hand we end up looking like the follower with two teams that have the same design.
FRED MAY: I vote for the Pelikan tail. I think we've got to bite the bullet and go there.
RICK REZABEK: I guess maybe I'm still more conservative than Fred, and I would stick with the four poster and try and get the signature to work with the airplane with the four poster.
NARRATOR: The room is deeply divided. In the end, Muilenburg must break the tie.
DENNIS MUILENBURG: Now, I've been a four poster fan up until about an hour ago, all right? I think we can beat the pants off Lockheed when it comes to working weight, handling qualities and aerodynamics. Whether its real or not, they're perceived to have a signature advantage, so we need to do something to our configuration that will give us a signature advantage. I think the Pelikan tail does that. All right?
NARRATOR: Feeling pressure to make a bold choice, Muilenburg chooses the Pelikan tail.
DENNIS MUILENBURG: So we're going to go with the Pelikan tail. We've got some unknowns, we're nervous about some things, so lets go figure out how to make it work.
NARRATOR: But just days later, after Frank Statkus and senior management review the choices, Boeing changes its mind. Concerned about weight and performance, it commits to the more conservative four post tail.
DENNIS MUILENBURG: The four poster is a little safer way to go, so I was a little torn from a personal standpoint. But when we stood back and looked at the data, I think we made the right decision.
NARRATOR: Boeing radically changes the wing and tail design, which gives the proposed fighter a fresh new look. The new plane is projected to be 1,500 pounds lighter and more agile.
But it's too late to incorporate the design changes into Boeing's two test planes, now eight months into assembly. Instead, the company will submit the new configuration with its final proposal. By testing the new design in simulations and wind tunnels, and flight testing the old design, Boeing believes it can prove the soundness of its approach.
GRAHAM WARWICK: To those of us watching JSF from the outside, this is the first sign that all is not well with the Boeing design. Both designs are evolving as the requirements evolve, but it seems that Boeing's design is not as adaptable as Lockheed's. The requirements are still evolving, so there must be concern within the government that Boeing's design can keep up.
MICHAEL HOUGH: There was a lot to be made of the fact that their design's all screwed up, and they couldn't fly, and they couldn't do this, and they were behind and so forth—not the case at all. To me, it was just an improvement in their design according to the requirements. It was very normal, very, very normal.
NARRATOR: Whatever the future holds for the redesign, at least one of Boeing's nightmares is finally over. George Bible's team has finished the troublesome wing skins and is ready to rush them from Seattle to California. The last pair of panels is loaded onto a C-5 Galaxy, the largest cargo jet in the Air Force.
GEORGE BIBLE: Boy, I hope that wind doesn't tip our wing over.
NARRATOR: Bible scrapped the temperamental thermoplastic and cooked up the wing skins from a more conventional composite. Though heavier and less durable, the new wing coverings are finally on their way to Palmdale, still more or less on time and on budget.
FRANK STATKUS: And that's just what happens when you're reaching in technology, sometimes you're successful and sometimes you're not.
GEORGE BIBLE: Emotionally, it will be over for me when I see that airplane disappear over the horizon heading south.
NARRATOR: With the wing skins safely in Palmdale, Boeing wastes little time attaching them to the wing box. But before the upper skin can be mated to the structure, critical wiring must be installed.
GEORGE BIBLE: Let's go terminate.
NARRATOR: A lone electrician crawls in between the skin and wing box to connect wiring. Working in the dark under the 700-pound wing skin is a grueling job.
GEORGE BIBLE: I'm going to need a heat gun.
NARRATOR: Hour after hour...
GEORGE BIBLE: Doing good.
NARRATOR: ...wire after wire, each connection is tested and doubled checked.
GEORGE BIBLE: How you doing, Lonnie?
LONNIE: Almost done.
GEORGE BIBLE: You're almost done? Yeah? How many connections you have to do?
ANDY BALOUGH: He's been in there for four and a half hours...has not come out yet. That's dedication. Now here he comes. Let's see if his legs are still moving.
GEORGE BIBLE: All right, Lonnie, my man. Oh...
NARRATOR: With the wiring done and the skin lowered into place, mechanics will spend the night hand-tightening thousands of fasteners.
Before the wing can be mated to the aircraft another major piece must first be attached to the fuselage. Like a giant gift, the entire front end of the airplane arrives in the Phantom Works hangar.
ANDY BALOUGH: I can't believe my eyes. We waited for all this time and we've finally got it. I can't wait to hook it up.
NARRATOR: The front end, which includes the cockpit with all its intricate electronics, was built in St. Louis, at a former McDonnell Douglas plant, now part of Boeing.
ANDY BALOUGH: Bring her back another three inches.
NARRATOR: But will this front end, built 1,800 miles away, mate up with the rest of the fuselage? The fit must be as precise as the width of a human hair.
CREW MEMBER 1: If we bring this down a little further we'll get the flushness a little better.
CREW MEMBER 2: Yeah. Both up together...bring it back just a little bit more. Bring it back about a half an inch and we're there.
CREW MEMBER 3: That's good, that's good.
NARRATOR: In less than two hours, the installation is complete, and the Boeing X-plane has its distinct face.
WALT CANNON: It's starting to look like an airplane, that's what's really neat about it.
ANDY BALOUGH: Oh no, I see our future contract.
WALT CANNON: Well, that too.
NARRATOR: With the precision fit of the wing, an apparition appears at the Phantom Works: the recognizable outline of the first of the Boeing X-planes. The company is now weeks ahead of schedule, and morale couldn't be higher.
MIKE BRUNER: It went great. It looks like an airplane now. Look at it. Lockheed, watch out!
NARRATOR: What Lockheed is watching out for is an end to its crippling parts delay. Mechanics finally install Bulkhead 270, which took five long months to carve out of titanium. Ed Beurer nervously waits to see if it will fit. If it does, a plane will quickly take shape around it. If it doesn't, it's game over for Lockheed.
Designed on the latest computers, cut with diamond tipped bits, only to be installed with a sandbag.
ED BEURER: That is a beautiful piece of job.
NARRATOR: In the race to complete its X-planes, Lockheed still trails Boeing by months, but the manufacturing team plans to fly full throttle to the finish.
RICK REZABEK: Basically this place is, you know, populated by a bunch of airplane nuts. So it's a very high pace, and that pace is not going to slacken up at all. It's going to continue.
NARRATOR: To underscore its commanding lead over Lockheed, Boeing stages a public relations coup at the Phantom Works. In a surprise move, Boeing has assembled both of its test planes for the media event.
FRANK STATKUS: Ladies and Gentlemen, the X-32A and the X-32B concept demonstrator aircrafts. What do you think?
NARRATOR: In an aerospace tradition called rollout, the company shows off its brainchild, in two different versions, to the world. It's a moment of high emotion for Boeing Program Manager Frank Statkus.
FRANK STATKUS: It's everything that we've done for the last three and a half years. It's all your successes, it's all your thoughts, it's all your weekend work, it's all your overtime. It's the soul that's in that airplane, because each and every one of us sweated bullets to put it there.
NARRATOR: Rollout is a milestone for the Boeing team. But as things stand now, Frank Statkus with wings would get in the air faster than the X-planes. They may have soul, but they don't yet have brains.
Hundreds of thousands of lines of vital software code is still under development, to manage every function of the X-planes. That work gets tested here in a multi-million dollar simulator. Boeing's lead test pilot Fred Knox puts the faux fighter through its paces.
FRED KNOX: How about we look at twenty knots crosswind? Just give it a little on the side.
NARRATOR: Modern fighters are designed to be aerodynamically unstable. Under computer control, that aerial volatility transforms into acrobatic agility.
FRED KNOX: Okay, now I have crosswinds. Roger that.
NARRATOR: Every simulated flight by Knox helps refine this essential software.
FRED KNOX: The flight control software, it controls the airplane, the way it flies, but it also turns on the air conditioner. It raises and lowers the landing gear. It navigates for us. It does every critical element, every critical safety element in the airplane. If we haven't done the development here the airplane will not fly.
NARRATOR: But less than two months after rollout, the software development suddenly goes off line.
Boeing is crippled by the largest white-collar strike in American history. Seventeen thousand aerospace engineers are off the job, including more than a hundred developing the X-planes flight controls. Progress inside the Boeing Phantom Works grinds to nearly a halt, while outside, a small group of engineers joins the strike.
WALT CANNON: It's a bad situation for everybody. You know, everybody really has real mixed emotions, I think, and is real conflicted about it.
NARRATOR: Forty days later the strike ends, but Boeing doesn't escape unscathed.
FRANK STATKUS: The strike on our program is a terrible wound. We lost weeks of schedule. Those weeks will not be recovered.
NARRATOR: With the setbacks, Boeing's lead over Lockheed evaporates. After years of jousting back and forth, these two combatants are galloping toward the tournament grounds, toward the arena where X-planes and test pilots meet their fate.
It's time for this battle to take to the air. Just 30 miles away from the Skunk and Phantom Works lies the proving grounds for all of America's X-planes, Edwards Air Force Base.
DENNIS O'DONOGHUE (Test Pilot, The Boeing Company): Edwards Air Force Base is a tremendous facility, and one of the hallmarks of that facility is the lakebed. It's about 12 miles wide, it's 20 miles long, and it's a very hard flat surface. And you can put the airplane down, and you don't have to worry about running out of runway because you've got the whole lakebed in front of you.
NARRATOR: With these wide-open spaces, Edwards and experimental planes go back to the first supersonic flights. Here the original X-plane, the X-1 flown by Chuck Yeager, broke the sound barrier over half a century ago. Since then, aviation triumphs and tragedies have made Edwards the hallowed ground of X-plane history.
Now these skies will hold an epic contest never seen before, a battle between X-planes.
JAY MILLER: Historically, we have 47 X-airplane programs. This is the first time in history, ever, that any two of those X-airplanes have competed against each other for a production contract. It's unprecedented.
NARRATOR: It's time for Boeing's dream to take flight, while Lockheed can only watch from the ground. After years of derision as a second rate contender, Boeing proves even an underdog like its X-32 can have its day.
FRED KNOX: This is Freddy Knox from The Boeing Company. We're getting ready to launch the X-32 on its first flight this morning, and I wonder if I could get a little forecast for the winds? Say from about 7:30 a.m.?
NARRATOR: Fred Knox, Boeing's Chief Test Pilot and a key developer of the X-plane, will take the craft on its maiden flight.
FRED KNOX: I appreciate your help this morning. Bye bye.
MIKE JORGENSEN: Good day to go?
FRED KNOX: It's an excellent day to go.
NARRATOR: With the fate of the Boeing effort resting on his shoulders, Knox receives a final blessing from Frank Statkus.
FRANK STATKUS: Have fun. We'll see you at the other end.
FRED KNOX: Absolutely.
For me, it's about as big a day as a test pilot is ever going to have, a chance to go do a first flight. It's a big day for me. It's a big day for the rest of the team. We've spent four years now, working very hard—everybody, from flight controls to A.P.U. pumps, to structure, a lot of hard work—and we should get a nice, safe flight in.
CREW MEMBER 4: Have a great flight.
FRED KNOX: It's a big day for all of us. See you guys at Edwards!
It couldn't be a nicer day.
FRANK STATKUS: I'm excited, I'm pumped. We're ready to go. Everybody's smiling. Look at that.
FRED KNOX: Looking sharp sir, F-8 forever you bet.
FRANK STATKUS: There's my team.
NARRATOR: If Fred Knox is nervous, he doesn't show it. Even after finding some stray tools in the cockpit.
FRANK STATKUS: Two of them.
FRED KNOX: Home, sweet home!
NARRATOR: Knox is alone in the plane, but he has plenty of company in the air. Two chase planes flown by other test pilots will monitor his flight.
BARB GLEICH (Mechanic, The Boeing Company): It's going to be exciting...finally. All of our life is in there, blood, sweat and tears.
NARRATOR: Like proud parents, the weary engineers and mechanics of the Phantom Works gather to see their fighter off.
FRED KNOX: Ready for takeoff on Runway 7. Be an airborne pickup from Salty Dog, and NASA 852 will be joining us.
CONTROL: Control copies. Read you loud and clear, and we are ready.
FRED KNOX: And I'm going to go flying.
NARRATOR: Today's flight isn't a round trip. The Boeing plane is leaving the Phantom Works for good to take up residence at Edwards Air Force Base, a short distance away.
CREW MEMBERS: Yes!
WALT CANNON: I was bawling like a baby. Yeah, I mean, it was, it was excitement. I mean, mainly a huge sense of relief.
NARRATOR: Within minutes the X-plane is in the airspace over Edwards, wheels down, just in case. Knox has flown this plane for hundreds of hours in a simulator. Now he gets to see if the real thing handles the same way.
FRED KNOX: I'm happy with the plane.
NARRATOR: Then Boeing Test Pilot Dennis O'Donoghue, in his chase plane, spots a problem.
DENNIS O'DONOGHUE: This is Irish on the starboard side. You've got hydraulic fluid leaking from about the forward mid-fuselage.
FRED KNOX: I'm just guessing it's the first flight stuff going out a little bit, but uh, we'll watch it.
DENNIS O'DONOGHUE: It doesn't appear to be dissipating. I'll keep an eye on it.
FRED KNOX: Roger.
NARRATOR: With the source of the leak uncertain, Knox is told to cut short his long awaited flight.
FRED KNOX: We're just going to give you the abbreviated test points, and we'll set up for a landing here.
CONTROL: Congratulations, Fred. Well done.
FRED KNOX: Hey, we got airborne.
DENNIS MUILENBURG: There she is. Got one flight under her belt.
FRED KNOX: We dropped a little fluid out of it. We never lost...everything stayed up. It was full normal landing. The flying quality is about eleven.
O'Donoghue was getting nervous. He couldn't stand the fluid any more. Hey, so it was time to land, huh?
DENNIS O'DONOGHUE: Yeah, it was definitely time to land. The moment I saw it, it was time to land.
NARRATOR: The hydraulic leak turns out to be minor, a tiny glitch in an otherwise triumphant day.
Over Edwards, Boeing begins a series of test flights. During each one, the pilot puts the plane through a specific set of maneuvers known as test points. Sensors document the plane's flying characteristics. The results go to the JSF.
So far, the plane's performance closely mirrors the Boeing simulations, a sign of just how sophisticated computer design has become.
FRED KNOX: Every pilot has been astounded at how closely the airplane actually matches what we thought it would do, from air speeds and flying qualities and system performance. That's just been really a good surprise.
NARRATOR: While this version of the Boeing X-plane is intended for both the Air Force and Navy, it's the Navy requirements that will be the most demanding.
Commander Phil Yates, call sign Rowdy, is the official Navy Test Pilot assigned to the Boeing effort. For him, it was an unexpected honor.
COMMANDER PHIL "ROWDY" YATES (Test Pilot, U.S. Navy): I received a phone call: "How would you like to be the first Navy pilot to fly the JSF?" Well, after picking my chin up off the ground, I said, "Yeah, I think I'd like to do that."
NARRATOR: Carrier landings are a testament to the precision skill of Navy pilots, and Rowdy is one of the best.
In preparation for testing the Boeing X-plane, he takes an F-18 Hornet out for a spin.
ROWDY YATES: Okay, good nozzles, good hydraulic pressure, good RPMs. There's the salute, here we go.
And we're off, man.
Carrier landings are probably the most demanding task a pilot may be faced with, especially at night in adverse conditions—pitching deck, bad weather. You have to be able to precisely control the airplane.
NARRATOR: Flying at about 150 miles per hour, Navy pilots aim for a target zone of only 120 feet, about the size of a tennis court. They must catch one of four arresting cables.
Pilots don't apply brakes. In fact, at contact with the flight deck, they gun the engine to full power so that if the plane misses the cables there is enough thrust to get airborne.
ROWDY YATES: If landing on a runway is like threading a belt through a belt loop, landing on a carrier is like threading a needle.
NARRATOR: A test pilot's job is to jump into a plane in which he may have little experience and report on its pros and cons.
ROWDY YATES: When you start doing that in an airplane that's never been flown before, then it, it really is what gets a test pilot, I think, excited.
NARRATOR: What's exciting to a test pilot would be sheer terror to most people.
Here at Edwards, Rowdy will put Boeing's X-plane through the precision maneuvers of a carrier landing.
ROWDY YATES: We all recognize that these are unproven airplanes, but we, as test pilots, deal with that, that we're going to be able to handle any situation that the aircraft presents to us. If we don't feel that way, we wouldn't be flying.
NARRATOR: The Boeing team has worked hard to minimize the danger, but the test requires Rowdy to fly so close to the ground, any error or technical problem may be fatal. A section of runway has been marked off, equal to the landing strip on a carrier deck.
ROWDY YATES: God, IT goes.
CONTROL: Roger that, Phantom 3.
NARRATOR: From a control room miles away, a team of Boeing engineers monitors the X-plane's every move.
ROWDY YATES: The pilot learns what kind of corrections and control inputs he has to make, and then it's also the aircraft's ability to respond to those control inputs. It's that combination that ultimately determines how well the airplane is going to do at the ship.
NARRATOR: As he would on a real carrier, Rowdy receives visual cues from an optical landing aid called the Fresnel Lens. If he can line up an amber light called the meatball correctly, Rowdy knows he's approaching at a safe angle for a successful touchdown.
He gets additional tips from a landing signal officer on the ground. On a real carrier this officer would give a score to every landing.
Low start in the middle.
LIEUTENANT JOHN "GOAT" BROTEMARKLE (U.S. Navy): We're not really trying to grade the pilot on what Rowdy's doing. He's a skilled aviator who knows how to make the corrections...
...so what were trying to look, is find out how the airplane is performing with certain deviations applied to it.
NARRATOR: With each attempt the degree of difficulty goes up. To recreate real-world conditions, Rowdy begins an approach descending too fast, or at too steep an angle, and then tries to correct for it.
ROWDY YATES: Man, that's amazing.
NARRATOR: The X in X-plane means experimental, but occasionally it means unexpected.
On one test flight, pilot Dennis O'Donoghue runs into trouble.
DENNIS O'DONOGHUE: We were just doing a routine test with the aircraft, to see if we ever lost the engine could we crank the engine back up and get it relit.
AIRPLANE COMPUTER VOICE: Caution.
NARRATOR: Suddenly a warning light comes on indicating the X-plane's landing brakes have failed.
AIRPLANE COMPUTER VOICE: Flight control.
CONTROL 1: Talk to him. Do you want to reset or stall?
CONTROL 2: He can't reset. He's got to bring it home.
CONTROL 1: Phantom 3? Control. We need you to R.T.B.
DENNIS O'DONOGHUE: R.T.B.? Can I reset?
CONTROL 1: Negative.
NARRATOR: Suspecting the warning light is at fault, O'Donoghue brings the plane in to land on the runway. Without brakes, he will quickly run out of room, risking injury to himself and his reputation. Wrecking a multi-million dollar X-plane doesn't look good on the resume.
DENNIS O'DONOGHUE: On touchdown, I press the brake pedals—no response. So it was just a matter of adding power and getting airborne again.
CONTROL 1: Phantom 3? Control. We need you to R.T.B.
NARRATOR: With the brakes definitely gone, it's time for Plan B: saving a 21st century plane using a two- million-year-old lakebed.
DENNIS O'DONOGHUE: I had plenty of lakebed in front of me. I touched down and just let the aircraft roll to a stop. Had we not had the lakebed, that would have been a much more critical emergency, much more critical.
NARRATOR: After a month of successful flights, Boeing's luck has run out. Repairing the brakes reveals a major software problem and the plane's grounded.
To make matters worse, Boeing no longer has the skies over Edwards to itself. That very day, Lockheed's X-plane is finally ready to leave its factory home and head into battle.
TOM MORGENFELD: Do the funky chicken here.
NARRATOR: The X-plane's first flight is in the hands of Chief Test Pilot Tom Morgenfeld. Having flown everything from the first Stealth fighter to black aircraft that are still classified, Morgenfeld has unrivaled experience.
Yet he is all too familiar with the dangers of flight test. In 1992, while piloting an Air Force prototype, a computer malfunction sends Morgenfeld's aircraft into a violent oscillation. After skidding in flames for more than a mile, Morgenfeld walks away unharmed.
Now, nearly a decade later, the legendary test pilot is about to climb into another untested fighter.
TOM MORGENFELD: No turning back now. I think I've committed myself, huh?
The first time you fly an airplane it's a tremendous thrill, your heart's pumping and the adrenaline is flowing, believe me.
NARRATOR: In a Lockheed tradition, Morgenfeld carries with him the wallets and car keys of Assembly Manager Ed Beurer and the rest of the senior X-plane team. It's a sign of confidence.
ED BEURER: Go, Tommy.
TOM MORGENFELD: We're airborne, gang, and it's flying great.
CONTROL: Roger, copy.
ED BEURER: I am so filled with emotion right now. Oh, man.
TOM MORGENFELD: Woohoo! This is fun. All complete, feels great.
Roger. Gear coming on my count. Three, two, one, now. And the doors are open. Smoothed out beautifully.
CONTROL: Roger. Copy that, Hat Trick.
NARRATOR: After 22 minutes the first flight is over. Lockheed's X-plane touches down at its new home.
CONTROL: Welcome to Edwards, and you're cleared for the shutdown.
TOM MORGENFELD: Roger that.
ED BEURER: That's a beautiful man up there right now, taking care of my baby.
TOM MORGENFELD: What an airplane! We did it man, we did it. What a thrill! Thank you, brother.
ED BEURER: Sorry. I had to hold you, I had to hold you.
TOM MORGENFELD: You set me up. Good job, man. Ah, Les. Good job, man. What an airplane, what an airplane! Magnificent! It felt great. It was super, yes. Thank you so much.
RICK REZABEK: God, it looked so awesome.
TOM MORGENFELD: Yeah, that's great. Thanks, Rick. I wish we had done a little bit more. I was waiting for it to just keep on flying. The airplane's ready, too. It feels great.
RICK REZABEK: We're going to fly the shit out of this airplane and just kick ass everyday. That's what it's all about.
NARRATOR: True to Rezabek's word, the Lockheed X-plane is back in the sky the very next day. A carefully orchestrated series of maneuvers slowly reveals this jet's true capabilities.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL PAUL "T.P." SMITH (JSF Chief Test Pilot, U.S. Air Force): "Baby steps" is a very good way to put it, very small analytical, incremental steps. We don't want go out and push the airplane or the pilot or the test team beyond their capabilities.
NARRATOR: Lieutenant Colonel Paul Smith, call sign T.P., is the JSF's chief test pilot, brought in from the Air Force and assigned to the Lockheed effort. Like all the pilots, he's spent hours in the simulator. But it didn't quite prepare him for the feel of the real thing.
T.P. SMITH: Probably the most incredible experience I felt was the enormous power behind me of the engine. I've never had this happen to me, but it's probably synonymous with being shot out of a fire hose. Just a very steady, incredible amount of acceleration, right through your back. And the feeling like this was a stallion that was ready to go anywhere, any place I wanted it to. And if I just let it go, it would go there.
NARRATOR: The Lockheed plane is like a stallion in another way as well. Like all fighters, when it comes to fuel, it eats like a horse. While not a JSF requirement, Lockheed wants to tank up its plane through aerial refueling. And to make up for lost time, Lockheed's ambitious test schedule depends on it.
T.P. SMITH: There was a lot of pressure to get the aerial fueling certification done so we could start tanking. The amount of time we could spend in the air before that was about 30 minutes, realistically, and that was just not enough time to get everything done that we need to get done.
NARRATOR: With only two flights in the X-plane under his belt, T.P. will attempt one of the most dangerous missions of the Lockheed program.
T.P. SMITH: Air-to-air tanking has always been kind of intimidating to me, because throughout my career I've been taught, "Don't let anything touch your airplane. Don't let another aircraft hit it, don't let ground fire hit it, don't let missiles hit it." And then the first thing you do is you go up to this tanker and the tanker hits you.
NARRATOR: At 20,000 feet, T.P. rendezvous with a KC-135, heavily loaded with fuel. The tanker slowly extends a boom toward a receptacle located behind the cockpit of the X-plane.
T.P. SMITH: It's really a basic feeling of trust between you and the guy flying the boom to make sure he doesn't hit the airplane where he's not supposed to.
NARRATOR: T.P. cautiously edges closer.
T.P. SMITH: At that point you just have to fly very stable because he's trying to plug that boom in the back of the aircraft.
NARRATOR: Running low on fuel with only minutes before having to abort, T.P. makes contact.
T.P. SMITH: You can actually feel it in the airplane. You feel like you're part of the tanker and it can actually fly you around. At that point, you just kind of relax or try to relax and stay in that same position while you download gas.
NARRATOR: X-plane and tanker are now coupled in tight formation at 350 miles per hour. Less than five minutes later, the crucial maneuver is over.
T.P. SMITH: This airplane flew tremendously well on the boom, better than any other airplane I've flown. And so it was very easy to get confident in yourself and confident in the airplane very quickly.
NARRATOR: For the competition, Lockheed designed its X-plane to use the Air Force system of aerial refueling, but Boeing's gone with the Navy's version.
With its software bugs fixed, Boeing's X-plane is back in the air.
Navy planes have a fuel probe designed to plug into a drogue basket at the end of a hose dangling from the tanker. But during Boeing's first refueling attempt, the basket flies dangerously close to instruments mounted on the nose. These test sensors are used only for evaluating the plane's performance, but if the basket breaks them off, they may be sucked into the engine. That could bring down the plane.
And that's not the only problem. When the refueling basket makes it onto the probe, it fails to seat properly, sending gas everywhere but the tank. In a blow to the Boeing effort, aerial refueling is ruled out as too dangerous.
JAY MILLER: I'm sure that Boeing's engineering staff was somewhat puzzled by all this. There was some serious study work done, there were a lot of engineering studies that were conducted, but converting that data to the full-scale finished artifact is often times a little bit of a magical process, and it doesn't always work out.
NARRATOR: For the remainder of flight testing, the Boeing X-plane gets its gas on the ground. And the company's month head start on Lockheed drips away.
JAY MILLER: Every time they have to land and refuel they're losing time. While they're doing that, Lockheed Martin is in the air and their completing all of their flight test objectives.
NARRATOR: For Lockheed, one goal has remained out of reach. In a month of test flights, its X-plane achieves mach 0.98, just short of breaking the sound barrier.
Like aerial refueling, the JSF doesn't require a demonstration of supersonic flight. But with only three more test flights of this version of their X-plane left, Lockheed wants to hear the boom.
RICK REZABEK: Today we're going to go supersonic for the first time. It's an emotional victory as much as anything else.
DICK BURTON (Flight Test Director, Lockheed Martin): People understand supersonic that work in this industry, and it's a very, very big thing. The crew has worked out here for, now, approaching 30 days, 7 days a week, 12 hours a day, and it's nice to give them a lift.
NARRATOR: The Lockheed X-plane team has struggled with a host of small but stubborn problems that have kept the plane subsonic. But at the end of a long day of flying, with test pilot Morganfeld at the controls, all that is forgotten when the Lockheed plane crosses the boundary originally shattered in the same skies by the very first X-plane.
Lighting the afterburner provides the extra push needed to go supersonic.
TOM MORGENFELD: Yeehaw. That was so amazing!
RICK REZABEK: It means a very successful end to a hugely successful first month of flying X-35s.
NARRATOR: Lockheed arrived late to flight test, but made up for it with a record-setting performance for an X-plane, 27 flights in 30 days.
A month later, Boeing's X-plane goes supersonic as well. The aircraft's grace in the air and strong test results have quieted the critics of its less than sleek shape.
Driven by the competition, each company has taken its X-plane to new levels of performance only to see its adversary do the same.
CURTIS PEEBLES: You had two aircraft prototypes and yet they were flying several times a day, and this is unheard of for X-planes. And it's a testament to both designs and both design teams that they were able to do this.
BILL SWEETMAN: Both teams set out to demonstrate a certain number of test points. They both seem to have done it. Both aircraft flew; they were pretty reliable. I don't think there's anything that's come out of this stage of the program that would say that one or the other is going to win.
JAY MILLER: That Boeing airplane is much more a competitor than anybody—and particularly Lockheed—really expected. I don't see any distinct advantage to either airplane. At this stage in the game, I'd have to tell you that it is neck and neck.
NARRATOR: Both Boeing and Lockheed realize the entire competition and the largest military contract ever, may come down to the JSF's final requirement, achieving the Harrier trick of landing vertically.
Houdini once made a five-ton elephant disappear. Lockheed plans an even greater feat: to levitate over three times that weight, a 17-ton fighter, using its radical new lift-fan. The fate of the competition and perhaps even the fate of the company rests on this untested system.
JAY MILLER: All of their eggs are in this one basket. If they do lose, effectively, Lockheed Martin as a fighter production entity in the United States, that will come to an end. They have nothing else to keep their front doors open.
NARRATOR: Lockheed engineers install their lift fan system into the X-plane, hopefully transforming it into that hybrid of the skies, a vertically landing jet.
While it remains unproven, the concept behind their unique lift-fan system exudes engineering elegance. Two columns of air, instead of one in the Harrier, balance the plane's descent. One column is the engine exhaust directed downward. The other column is created by a lift-fan connected to the engine by a drive shaft. The fan takes in air from above and blasts it out below. It's an ingenious system, but in practice it requires a symphony of moving parts.
BILL SWEETMAN: Lockheed has chosen a very complex solution. If something goes mechanically catastrophically wrong during the hover, you have very, very little time to get out.
NARRATOR: A former Royal Navy pilot with Harrier combat experience in the Falklands and Bosnia, Simon Hargreaves will attempt the first hover in the Lockheed X-plane. He's spent years in preparation. Still, there's no question he's about to take a ride on the wild side.
SIMON HARGREAVES: Nobody's ever tried to model a propulsion system that's quite as complex as this, as, quite as integrated as this, so there may be some areas there where the airplane doesn't respond exactly as I'm expecting.
NARRATOR: The vertical landing tests will start over a hover pit, ten feet deep and covered by a steel grate. The hover pit is designed to minimize the chance the engine will suck in its own hot exhaust. Hot gas ingestion is a familiar danger to Harrier pilots. If the exhaust used to float the plane somehow enters the engine's air intake, the engine will start to choke.
JAY MILLER: What happens when you ingest hot gas, your thrust decays; your thrust decays, you lose lift; you lose lift, you start descending at a rapid rate, and can lead to a catastrophic accident.
NARRATOR: Venting the hot gases out the side of the hover pit provides some protection.
SCOTT WINSHIP: Here we go. Seventy percent, throttle up. Come on, Simon. Come on, baby. Up the power.
NARRATOR: Hargreaves holds steady twenty feet in the air. At 35-thousand pounds, it's the heaviest fighter ever to hover.
CREW MEMBER 5: Wow.
NARRATOR: The lift fan performs without incident and produces 1,500 pounds more thrust than predicted.
SCOTT WINSHIP: That was great.
RICK REZABEK: That was incredible. Let's do that again. Incredible.
NARRATOR: After nearly two years of struggling to keep up with Boeing, the Lockheed team now has reason to display their usual abundance of self-confidence.
RICK REZABEK: We've never had a doubt in our minds at any point in this program that this is the right type of airplane and propulsion system. And we've felt very sorry for the competing team against us.
SCOTT WINSHIP: I never felt sorry for them.
RICK REZABEK: Yeah, that's true.
NARRATOR: While the lift fan works, Lockheed still hasn't accomplished the tricky mid-air maneuver called conversion, going from level flight to vertical landing, with its complicated dance of moving parts.
The same morning Lockheed lifts off, Boeing plans a dramatic demonstration of its own vertical lift system. The company's second X-plane has been flown across the country. The new proximity to Washington decision-makers and lobbyists doesn't hurt, but the real advantage is invisible.
The air at sea level has greater density than at the high altitude location of Edwards Air Force Base. Thicker air means better engine performance.
In this test of its direct lift system, Boeing hopes to outdo Lockheed. Test Pilot Dennis O'Donoghue will start in level flight, slow the plane down to nothing and hover. His slow speed will make the wings useless, and a failure of the lift system will mean the plane falls from the sky.
To give O'Donoghue a chance to eject, Boeing has conducted its early tests at higher altitudes gradually working lower and slower. Now, after 43 flights, Boeing is ready to go all the way, to attempt zero airspeed.
NANCYLEW O'DONOGHUE: I've got butterflies.
NARRATOR: O'Donoghue's family is among the spectators of today's historic event.
NANCYLEW O'DONOGHUE : The boys are really excited, too. I think Dennis slept because he knew he needed to. The boys slept. I didn't sleep a wink.
Look, Daddy's airplane. Yes.
NARRATOR: Two hundred feet above the runway, O'Donoghue slowly decelerates to zero airspeed and hovers. A 28,000-pound airplane hangs frozen in the sky.
DENNIS O'DONOGHUE: Irish. It looks good here. Yeah, the hover performance looks real good, numbers were looking pretty nice.
CONTROL: And just for the record, pilot, yeah? You are my hero!
DENNIS O'DONOGHUE: Pretty cool, eh?
CONTROL: You got that right! Congratulations, Dennis.
ROWDY YATES: Oh my god, what a day. I'm sitting there yelling and clapping and crying, driving up, seeing it just right there.
NARRATOR: On this day the X-32B hovers four times—once for two and a half minutes—and, demonstrating rock solid control, performs a perfect 360-degree turn.
NANCYLEW O'DONOGHUE: That was just wonderful. Brendan said it was better than Star Wars, and for him, that's a lot.
NARRATOR: One month later, Boeing is ready to make history. If it works, the X-32 will become the first new fighter since the Harrier to transition from conventional flight to landing vertically.
For this risky mission, Boeing will also use a hover pit to reduce the chances of hot exhaust being ingested into the engine during the landing. To increase the margin of safety, Boeing engineers have removed some exterior parts to lighten the X-plane's weight.
Some critics will cry foul, but Boeing will respond that its new design, which it didn't have time to build but will submit to the JSF as its final proposal, is 1500 pounds lighter.
Dennis O'Donoghue is in the cockpit again, while flight test conductor Howard Gofus will closely monitor the mission from the ground.
HOWARD GOFUS (Flight Test Conductor, The Boeing Company): Now there's fewer unknowns. We know we can do it, we know we've been there, we know what we've seen so far, but we're still only one failure away from having a really bad day.
DENNIS O'DONOGHUE: Okay, coming up to fifty feet. Here we go.
NARRATOR: Closing in over the pit the Boeing X-plane comes to a stop and begins a slow descent. If disaster strikes, O'Donoghue is now too low to eject.
CONTROL: Tee-two, tee-two, watch tee-two. In hover. Caution, caution...
NARRATOR: Suddenly the controllers spot trouble.
AIRPLANE COMPUTER VOICE: Caution, caution.
NARRATOR: Invisibly. the engine has ingested hot gas from the lift nozzles and loses power.
CONTROL: Caution! Knock it off one!
NARRATOR: O'Donoghue feels the bottom dropping out, but it's too late to abort.
CONTROL: Howard we're coming down. Twenty feet!
NARRATOR: Twenty feet and only seconds from the ground the gas dissipates and the engine gains enough thrust to touch down safely.
CONTROL: Excellent landing.
HOWARD GOFUS: He's down on the ground and we realize it, and so there's the, you're in a quandary for that split second. Okay, we just did our first v.l. What happened?
NARRATOR: Over by the runway, no one is aware of the close call. Reviewing the data, the test team believes a choice made to increase safety, the hover pit, may be causing the problem. There's almost no crosswind to clear the pit of exhaust. Hot gas may be collecting and bouncing upward into the air.
They decide to attempt a second vertical landing but on a solid surface.
HOWARD GOFUS: We decided we were going to go for the vertical landing on the pad, so we set up all the numbers...set it all up and know that, hey, the same thing could happen there.
CONTROL: Looking good so far. Good one.
NARRATOR: The second vertical landing goes without a hitch, to everyone's enormous relief.
But just a week later, during another vertical landing, an old friend pays an unwelcome visit. It's a pop stall, the result of hot gas ingestion just above the ground, a common event in Harriers. Boeing engineers predicted it might happen and designed it out of their new version. But they decide to play it safe and stop testing their vertical system.
A month later, Boeing completes all major requirements for the Pentagon ahead of the competition.
HOWARD GOFUS: Hey, Frank, that's our man. Oh boy.
CREW MEMBER: Hey, Howard. Yes sir. We did it. Yes sir.
NARRATOR: It's a major landmark, and if anything has them worried the Boeing brass certainly doesn't show it.
FRANK STATKUS: I'm confident that we are AT the head of the class now, and I expect to stay there.
CREW MEMBER: All right, one more time. Yeah!
NARRATOR: The Lockheed plane now needs to prove it's ready for primetime by performing the critical transition from conventional flight to hover to landing vertically.
SIMON HARGREAVES: We need to demonstrate that we can land on a solid surface, both to make sure we've got the performance and the flying qualities to do that—to make sure that we've dealt with ground effects such as hot gas ingestion—and to prove that we can land on a normal sort of surface without damage or significant erosion to the surface.
Converting in three, two, one, now.
NARRATOR: At a thousand feet, Simon Hargreaves engages the lift fan and slows down. With air from the front and exhaust from the rear nozzle in balance, the Lockheed X-plane floats on nearly 40-thousand pounds of thrust.
This system avoids the problems of the Harrier and Boeing's direct lift. Cooler air from the lift fan creates an invisible barrier that prevents the engine from choking on its own hot gas.
After two minutes of hovering, Hargreaves eases off the throttle and gently guides the X-plane down.
SIMON HARGREAVES: That's beautiful, no problems at all.
CONTROL: Well done, Simon.
CREW MEMBER: Good job, Simon...honor
CREW MEMBER: Yeah, great Simon! Simon, looks like you've been doing that for twenty years.
SIMON HARGREAVES: It felt like it, yeah.
DICK BURTON: It's been a long time coming, and um, about the only thing I can say is yes!
SAM WILSON: It's going to be a tough choice, if one guy had stumbled here at the end then it would've made it easy.
ERIC DIDOMINICO (Joint Strike Fighter Program Office): It's not an easy choice and that's what the government wanted. The government wanted a close horse race, and I think they're going to get it now.
NARRATOR: In the waning days of the competition, at an undisclosed location somewhere near the Pentagon, JSF Director General Michael Hough takes NOVA inside a world where cameras have never been allowed. Behind a wall of security the secret proposals of Boeing and Lockheed are being evaluated by the government team that will help determine the winner of the Joint Strike Fighter program.
MICHAEL HOUGH: This is where the proposals are, all electronic of course. This is where we've got 200 people off and on coming in and looking at the proposals one at a time, gauging them against the operational requirements document.
NARRATOR: Digging through mountains of data, experts evaluate performance, cost, management and risk.
DAN NIELSON (Contracts Director, Joint Strike Fighter): Some of them are doing aerodynamic performance, figuring out: How fast will it go? What is the range? How will it turn? What kind of Gs can it sustain? Others are evaluating software and architecture.
NARRATOR: Now near the end of this jury process, the results are one of JSF's most closely guarded secrets.
MICHAEL HOUGH: We've got about six weeks left, by which we're going to take the results of our evaluation, give it to the Secretary of the Air Force who, in harmony with the Secretary of the Navy, is going to make a decision of who's going to build the airplane for the warfighter for the next forty years.
NARRATOR: As the final decision approaches, known in military speak as "down select," Boeing remains confident that its manufacturing know-how and cost saving designs have made it a winner.
DENNIS O'DONOGHUE: I think we all feel pretty good about going into down select, and I think we truly believe that we've got the right vehicle for the customer.
NARRATOR: But just before it crosses the finish line, Lockheed plans a final dramatic display, a bid for the history books and bait for the huge government contract.
In a test flight Lockheed dubs Mission X, its fighter takes off in less than 500 feet, then goes supersonic and lands vertically. Since the Harrier is subsonic, the maneuver is a milestone in aviation history and a direct hit on Boeing's need to strip off parts for vertical landing and reinstall them for supersonic flight.
But the Lockheed team pushes its luck too far. They attempt a vertical takeoff and transition to conventional flight. When the plane bobbles in the wind on liftoff the mission is aborted. But the failure does nothing to dampen Lockheed's legendary mix of technical ingenuity and engineering arrogance. This company believes it has won the right to build the first fighter of the 21st century.
RICK REZABEK: We did our part of the bargain, now the rest of it is up to the government.
NARRATOR: Five years after the battle began it's D-day. The decision is in the bag. The contractors anxiously await the news. In Palmdale, California, Rick Rezabek and a few hundred members of the Lockheed team gather in the X-plane hangar.
RICK REZABEK: We did as much as we needed to, to win this thing, and "we're" very, I don't know, very comfortably, anxiously nervous and confident.
SCOTT WINSHIP: We did the best we could.
RICK REZABEK: Yeah.
NARRATOR: While in an office in Seattle, the leaders of Boeing's X-plane program, Frank Statkus and company Vice Chairman Harry Stonecipher stand by for word.
HARRY STONECIPHER (Vice Chairman, The Boeing Company): Where are we going to be able to watch this thing from?
FRANK STATKUS: Right here.
HARRY STONECIPHER: Let's watch it.
EDWARD C. "PETE" ALDRIDGE: We are here today to announce the largest acquisition program in the history of the Department of Defense, the Joint Strike Fighter. The value of the program could be in excess of two hundred billion dollars.
Two contractor teams, one led by Lockheed Martin and the other led by Boeing, have just completed a concept development phase. Both contractor teams met or exceeded the performance objectives established for the aircraft.
DR. JAMES G. ROCHE (Secretary of the United States Air Force): The process involved, at the end...was about two hundred and fifty people. And both proposals were very good, both demo programs were very good. But on the basis of strengths, weaknesses and degrees of risk of the program, it is our conclusion, joined in by our colleagues in the United Kingdom, that the Lockheed Martin team is the winner of the Joint Strike Fighter program on the best value basis.
PHIL CONDIT: Frank, tell your team they did an unbelievably good job. I could not have asked for more.
NARRATOR: In a call from Washington, Boeing C.E.O. Phil Condit consoles his team.
FRANK STATKUS: Is it a winner-take-all, Phil?
PHIL CONDIT: At this point the answer is yes, that this decision they've held to is a winner-take-all.
HARRY STONECIPHER: You did a great job.
FRANK STATKUS: I'm sorry.
HARRY STONECIPHER: No, you did a great job. I don't know what we missed.
CURTIS PEEBLES: In my mind, the Boeing redesign, the hot gas ingestion, makes me wonder if, for Boeing to win, Lockheed's lift fan engine had to fail.
BILL SWEETMAN: One of the biggest deciding factors in this competition, in my opinion, was that Boeing never managed to make a vertical landing with the aircraft in complete configuration.
They took the inlet cowl off. They took the landing gear doors off. Lockheed Martin made complete vertical landings with the aircraft in the same trim that it could go to supersonic speed in.
NARRATOR: The X-35, now officially designated the F-35, may become the most widely deployed fighter ever produced.
JAY MILLER: I think it's ironic that Lockheed, in 1943, in effect, gave birth under the auspices of the Skunk Works, to the Lockheed P-80, which was the first successful operational jet fighter used by the U.S. military. And here it is almost sixty years later, and they are now the winner of the JSF competition, which could result in, potentially, the last manned jet fighter. It's the closing of a major chapter in the history of U.S. air power.
NARRATOR: With a buy-in from the services and billions in foreign sales, the future of the F-35 looks bright. But fasten your seat belts there may be turbulence ahead.
GRAHAM WARWICK: Now the fun really begins, because Lockheed has to deliver on its cost and performance promises for the JSF, and the government's already talking about cutting the number of airplanes it's going to buy and spending more on unmanned combat air vehicles.
NARRATOR: And who's one of the top builders of unmanned combat air vehicles? Boeing. Losing the battle of the X-planes may not mean losing the war to dominate the future of American air power.
CURTIS PEEBLES: So the last chapter in the JSF story is really yet to be written.
What was it like to be the only TV journalist allowed to cover the story from start to finish? How did he even get access? Go behind the scenes with the Battle of the X Planes producer, on NOVA's Website at PBS.org or American Online, Keyword PBS.
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