In 1993, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched the Common Affordable Lightweight Fighter project (CALF). The project's purpose was to develop a stealth-enabled design to replace all of United States Department of Defense lighter weight fighter and attack aircraft, including the F-16 Fighting Falcon, McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, and vertical/short takeoff / vertical landing (V/STOL) AV-8B Harrier II. Around the same time the Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST) project was started. In 1994, the U.S. Congress ordered the two to be merged into the Joint Strike Fighter Program.
Many companies took part in the first phase of this project, which involved drafting concept aircraft designs for submission to the Department of Defense. On 16 November 1996, Boeing and Lockheed Martin were awarded contracts for them to produce two of their concept demonstrator aircraft (CDA) each. Under the contract, these fighters were required to demonstrate conventional take-off and landing (CTOL), carrier take-off and landing (CV version), and short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL). They were also expected to include ground demonstrations of a production representative aircraft's systems, such as the Preferred Weapon System Concept (PWSC).
One major departure from previous projects was the prohibition of the companies from using their own money to finance development. Each was awarded $750 million to produce their two aircraft – including avionics, software and hardware. This limitation promoted the adoption of low cost manufacturing and assembly techniques, and also prevented either Boeing or Lockheed Martin from bankrupting themselves in an effort to win such an important contest.
Designing the X-32Boeing's strategy for a competitive advantage was to offer substantially lower manufacturing and life-cycle costs by minimizing variations between the different JSF versions. The X-32 therefore was designed around a large one piece carbon fiber composite delta wing. The wing was trapezoidal, spanning 9.15 meters, with a 55-degree leading edge sweep and could hold up to 20,000 pounds of fuel. The purpose of the high sweep angle was to allow for a thick wing section to be used while still providing limited transonic drag, and to provide a good angle for wing-installed antenna equipment. The wing would prove a challenge to fabricate.
The compete-on-cost strategy also led Boeing to pick a direct-lift thrust vectoring system, for the Marines' short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) requirement, as this would only necessitate the addition of a thrust vectoring module around the main engine. However, this choice required the engine to be mounted directly behind the cockpit, and moved the center of gravity forward from its usual position in jet fighters (at the rear of the airplane) to enable a neutral-attitude hover. Boeing had proposed, in the 1960s, a similar supersonic fighter with a mid-center-of-gravity mounted engine with vectored thrust nozzles, but this never proceeded beyond pictures published in Aviation Week. By comparison, the Lockheed entry looked like, if anything, a smaller version of the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter. The Boeing in-house nickname of the X-32 was the "Monica". Yet another effect of the selection of the direct-lift system was the large chin-mounted air intake, akin to the Vought F-8 Crusader and LTV A-7 Corsair II. This was required to feed sufficient air to the main engine (to provide the thrust necessary to hover) during the zero horizontal velocity phase, when it could not exploit ram-air pressure. A knock on effect of this large intake, was the potential direct visibility of the compressor blades to radar. Mitigation possibilities included variable baffles designed to block incoming radar without adversely affecting airflow.
Design changesThe two X-32 prototypes featured a delta wing design. However, eight months into construction of the prototypes, the JSF's maneuverability and payload requirements were refined at the request of the Navy and Boeing's delta wing design fell short of the new targets. Engineers altered the aircraft's design with a conventional tail (narrowly beating out a Pelikan tail) that reduced weight and improved agility, but it was too late to change the prototypes. It was judged that they would be sufficient to demonstrate Boeing's technology.
Flight testingDue to the heavy delta wing design of the prototypes, Boeing demonstrated STOVL and supersonic flight in separate configurations, with the STOVL configuration requiring that some parts be removed from the fighter. The company promised that their conventional tail design for production models would not require separate configurations. By contrast, the Lockheed Martin X-35 prototypes were capable of transitioning between their STOVL and supersonic configurations in mid-flight.
The first flight of the X-32A (designed for CTOL and carrier trials) took place on 18 September 2000, from Boeing's Palmdale plant to Edwards Air Force Base. The X-32B demonstrated STOVL flight, first flying in March 2001. The X-32 achieved STOVL flight in much the same way as the AV-8B Harrier II with thrust vectoring of the jet and fan exhaust. The Lockheed Martin team used a riskier alternative, a shaft-driven lift fan powered by the main engine which was designed to generate more thrust than possible with only direct exhaust gases. A successful design would have greater payload, and thus longer range than a simple thrust vectored turbofan.
Flight testing of both companies' aircraft continued until July 2001.
JSF competitionOn 26 October 2001, the Department of Defense announced that the Lockheed Martin X-35 won the JSF competition. The X-35 would be developed into the production F-35 Lightning II.
The loss of the JSF contract to Lockheed Martin in 2001 was a major blow to Boeing, as it represented the most important international fighter aircraft project since the Lightweight Fighter competition of the 1960s and 1970s, which had led to the F-16 Fighting Falcon and F/A-18 Hornet. At the time, the production run of the JSF was estimated at anywhere between 3,000 and 5,000. Prior to the awarding of the contract, many lawmakers pushed the idea of retaining the losing competitor as a sub-contractor, however the "winner takes all" principle was not changed. Nonetheless, Boeing views its work on the X-32 as a strategic investment, yielding important technologies which it has been able to adopt in the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and other studies.
eing X-32A was transferred to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Its condition had deteriorated due to sitting outside for several years following the end of the JSF competition. The X-32B was transferred to the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum in St. Mary's County, Maryland in 2005. It was undergoing restoration at the museum's restoration facility in June 2009, and is now on display.
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