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Battle of the X-Planes

TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: February 4, 2003

 

X-Planes homepage

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.

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Head to head: Boeing's X-32 (left) and Lockheed Martin's X-35, prototypes of the Joint Strike Fighter

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Battle of the X-Planes Web Site Content
Behind the Scenes

Behind the Scenes
Producer Mike Jorgensen on filming inside top-secret facilities.

Where Combat Planes Retire

Where Combat Planes Retire
Visit Arizona's "boneyard," a home for old fighters and bombers.

Meet a Test Pilot

Meet a Test Pilot
Navy Commander "Rowdy" Yates on test-flying fighters.

Designing for Stealth

Designing for Stealth
How to render a 15-ton hunk of flying metal "invisible" to the enemy.

Outfitting a Fighter Pilot

Outfitting a Fighter Pilot
A pilot's gear can save his life in deadly situations.

Getting Airborne

Getting Airborne
See how a virtual plane achieves enough lift to take off.

Wing Designs

Wing Designs
Discover how airfoil shapes affect the way a plane flies.



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