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From X-Plane to Next Plane
January 31, 2003
X-plane flying left
image: Lockheed Martin

For five years Boeing and Lockheed Martin battled it out for a 200-billion dollar contract to build the new "Joint Strike Fighter."

"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," NASA’s Sam Wilson told PBS’s NOVA.

As shown on PBS's NOVA, the challenge of the competition was to build a single fighter for a fixed low cost that would serve the differing needs of the Air Force, Navy and Marines. The three branches agreed the new plane, like the Stealth fighter, had to be nearly invisible to radar and fly at supersonic speeds. But there was more.

The Navy wanted a plane that could operate from an aircraft carrier. The Air Force wanted a nimble dogfighter, and the Marines wanted one that lands and takes off vertically, like the Harrier jet. But building a fighter that does all three is a tall order. "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 to build a fighter that can land and take-off vertically," says aerospace writer Bill Sweetman in an interview with NOVA. "But trying to build a fighter that can do all three is very, very difficult."

Perhaps the greatest engineering challenge for the designers of the experimental, or X-Planes, was the Marines' need for vertical landing and takeoff. This up-and-away capability has proven itself invaluable. The Harrier needs only five hundred feet to takeoff, a third less than most fighters, turning highways into runways.

X-plane flying up
image: Lockheed Martin

To meet the Marine's requirement, the Boeing team decided on a direct lift method for their plane, similar to the Harrier jet. With direct lift all of the thrust, or lift, comes from only one source, the plane's engine.

For their plane, the Lockheed team took a more radical approach, with its lift fan system. "The lift fan has been an engineering challenge, because there has not been a lift fan built before," Lockheed Martin's chief engineer, Rick Rezabek, told NOVA. The Lockheed lift fan system provides two sources of thrust: one from the engine and another from a fan in the front of the plane. The second source gives pilots more lift and an extra margin of safety.

In the end Lockheed Martin would win the battle of the X-Planes. Exactly why may never be known. The reasons are classified. What is known is that the decision secures the company's place well into the 21st century.

by Orrin Schonfeld

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