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Battle of the X-Planes

Behind the Scenes: The “X”-File
by Mike Jorgensen

X-Planes homepage

Infiltrate the world's two largest aerospace companies—Boeing and Lockheed Martin—which are competing to build the fighter plane for the 21st century. Dubbed the X-Plane, it is known officially as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), because it will serve three branches of the U.S. military—the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. Your assignment will involve taking cameras inside some of America's most classified facilities. This five-year mission will conclude with the Department of Defense awarding the winning team the largest contract in military history, estimated at $200 billion. You realize, of course, that divulging any information gathered during the making of this film could threaten the national security of the United States, not to mention your own personal well-being.

Good luck,

December 1996 - Washington, DC

Today I met with the head of the JSF program, Rear Admiral Craig Steidle. Admiral Steidle is a former Navy attack pilot and veteran of the Vietnam War. Joining us is Fred Schwartz, the chief government engineer for the program. Schwartz has just wrapped up his work as chief engineer on the top-secret B-2 Stealth bomber program. I'm struck by a remark he makes that the winning JSF aircraft could be America's last manned fighter plane.

We have a long discussion about my idea to make a behind-the-scenes film about the competition between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. If Steidle agrees to my proposal and the project goes forward, it will mark the first time in history filmmakers have ever been allowed inside a U.S. weapons competition. Steidle is enthusiastic about the idea but feels the big challenge will be getting Boeing and Lockheed Martin to sign on. As our meeting wraps up, Steidle, to my surprise and relief, gives my proposal the green light and offers to smooth the way with the two companies.

January 1997 - Seattle, Washington and Fort Worth, Texas

I meet with respective executives and engineers at Boeing and Lockheed Martin about my proposed film. The reception from both teams is warm but measured. With good reason they are concerned about corporate espionage and about protecting their proprietary secrets. The stakes are huge—the winner will take control of the U.S. fighter industry—and both teams have recruited the brightest minds in aerospace to give them the best shot at victory. One top executive says to me, "You don't want to mess this up, or they're gonna find your bones in the desert one day." I hope he's kidding, but I fear he's not.

“You don't want to mess this up, or they're gonna find your bones in the desert one day.”

In the end both teams okay the project and promise they'll work with me to create an "access agreement" that will allow me inside both teams and provide them with bulletproof secrecy and security.

August 1997

What the various players assured me would take only a few weeks has turned into eight months, and still the access agreement is nowhere in sight. Moreover, I haven't heard from one of the teams in more than three months. This is not a good sign.

July 27, 1998

It is Admiral Steidle's final week as JSF director. On this day, as he prepares to leave office the long-awaited access agreement magically shows up on my desk, bearing signatures from both Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The agreement is only a few pages long, but there are several key clauses I will have to follow to the letter:

(1) After each day of filming, I must turn over all footage to security personnel, who will store it at their facility until I fly home. Once back in Canada, where I live, I have to immediately place the videotapes into an approved "secure location." This is a small room with a massive steel door like those used in banks. The vault is deep inside the bowels of a building not far from my office in Edmonton, Alberta.

After I'm cleared by security, it takes an electronic pass card, a pass code, and the combination of the vault to gain entrance. Inside the vault, Boeing and Lockheed Martin each has its own metal storage cabinet. It takes another key to get inside these to retrieve the footage. I am only one of three people who know the whereabouts of this facility, and the government sends a representative to inspect the place and make sure the security procedures are in order.

(2) I will not at any time pass on information about one team to the other, nor will I talk to anyone about what's going on inside either team. Translation: Talk to anyone, and the project is over.

(3) I will have a contractor or government escort with me at all times. Translation: We trust you, but not that much. For most of the production I'm escorted by Kathy Crawford of the JSF Program Office. Crawford has been with the Department of Defense for more than a quarter century, and she'll spend the next few years looking over my shoulder and making sure I don't film anything I'm not supposed to. In the end, much of the success I have in making this film will be due in large part to Crawford's enthusiasm and help in ensuring that I have the access I need to tell the story.

July 29, 1998 - Palmdale, California

Today is the first day of principal photography inside Lockheed Martin's mythical Skunk Works. This is a place of legend, where engineers have turned out some of the most exotic aircraft ever conceived. The moment my crew and I walk in, I hear "What is a camera doing here?" One senior executive tells me, "I've spent the past 30 years working on aircraft so secret I couldn't even tell my wife about them. Getting comfortable with this may take awhile." When I finish filming three years later, my Lockheed Martin escort remarks, "You've spent more time inside the Skunk Works than any other journalist in history." I'm quick to respond: "Don't worry, my lips are sealed."

Less than a mile away is the Boeing Phantom Works. This is where Boeing will assemble both prototypes of its X-plane. Inside the hangar, a blue curtain divides the massive space in half. Speakers affixed above the curtain blast out country music. "What's on the other side of the curtain?" I ask. The look from my escort says it all: "Never mind."

March 1999 - Seattle

Boeing has finished working on its massive wing skins for the X-32, as it's calling its X-Plane. Team members transport the last two wing skins by truck to McCord Air Force Base in nearby Tacoma, where they will be loaded onto a C-5 Galaxy military transport plane for the trip to Edwards Air Force Base in California. The C-5 is the largest aircraft in the Air Force inventory—a most impressive airplane.

With me are associate producer Neil Thomas and sound recordist Igal Petel. As workers load the skins onto the C-5, we prepare to hightail it to SeaTac airport to catch a flight to Los Angeles, where we'll hire a car and drive to Edwards to continue filming. But when the skins are loaded, the C-5's Air Force crew asks if we'd like to fly with them. I need to film the aircraft taking off, but I tell Neil and Igal that they should go ahead. Igal has his still camera with him, and during the flight the crew encourages him to take photos of the aircraft and crew.

Several hours later I'm sitting in the SeaTac airport waiting to board my flight when my cell phone rings. It's Nancy Tibeau from the Boeing public relations department. "Neil and Igal are at Edwards," she says, "under arrest!" After landing, the C-5 pilot had told Neil and Igal to feel free to take some snaps of the aircraft while his crew unloaded the wing skins. Now, taking photographs at a military base without the proper escort and pass is strictly taboo—even if your pilot says go for it—and it's a quick way to meet the military police.

Igal had just framed up a well-composed shot of the C-5 when he heard several sets of Air Force-issue boots running up behind him followed by shouts of "Halt!" With M-16s drawn, the MPs escorted Neil and Igal to base security, where they confiscated the film and individually interrogated the pair for several hours before finally releasing them. When I arrive, I see that my two "tourists" are traumatized, and Igal, for one, pledges to stick solely to sound recording from now on.

September 1999 - USS Abraham Lincoln

We are off the coast of Oregon filming Commander Phil "Rowdy" Yates [see Meet a Test Pilot] practicing carrier landings in preparation for testing the Navy version of the Boeing X-32. This is the most violent environment I can imagine shooting in. I'm blown over by an A-6 Intruder attack aircraft as it takes off, and Igal and I get the unprotected parts of our faces singed by the engines of an F-18 fighter. After several days we depart the ship intact. Despite the harsh environment and difficult shooting, it remains, quite simply, one of the coolest things I've ever done.

May 2000 - Somewhere in the American Southwest

At 2 a.m. one morning, I climb into a van whose driver is known only as Denny. The two of us spend the next two hours winding our way through the desert. At the end of a long dirt road, we come to an empty guard post. Denny stops at the gate and shuts off the engine. Instantly I hear a voice through the static of a nearby intercom demanding identification. We comply, and the gate rolls open, allowing us to enter.

“Here we are,” says my escort. Here we are where? I think to myself. There is nothing here but sand.

Several miles from the gate we approach several windowless buildings. Outside are models of some strange-looking aircraft I've never seen before. We meet our guides, who lead us to another location farther out in the desert. "Here we are," says my escort. Here we are where? I think to myself. There is nothing here but sand. We get out of the vehicle and start walking. It's now 5 a.m. but still dark. Could this be the beginning of "they're gonna find your bones in the desert one day?"

In the distance I can see a huge man-made crater. We soon come to the lip of the "hole." Fifty feet below is what looks like a missile silo—a concrete bunker about half the size of a football field with a pair of massive doors on top. As I set up my camera, my escort radios some orders over his walkie-talkie. The doors suddenly slide open and brilliant red light streams out. I feel like I'm on the set of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

Out of the ground rises a full-scale model of the X-35—Lockheed Martin's X-Plane. The model is mounted on a 200-foot pole, which rises slowly out of the hole in the desert and towers high over our heads. My jaw is still on the ground when my escort begins giving me the history of the facility.

"This is the place where we first tested the signature of the F-117 Stealth Fighter," he says. "Now we're conducting the same sets of tests on the X-35." As I watch, the aircraft is rotated and tilted while engineers direct radar beams at it. After the test is finished, the fighter disappears back into its hole in the ground, and the doors slide shut. My escort then asks me the most loaded rhetorical question I've ever received. "Do you wanna go inside and shoot?" He practically has to run to catch up with me. (For more on stealth technology, see Designing for Stealth.)

December 2000 - Edwards Air Force Base, California

It's 6 a.m., and I'm waiting beside the runway for Boeing's X-32 to take off. It's still dark as a B-2 Stealth Bomber taxis past, followed by an F-22 Raptor, a B-1 bomber, and a few F-117s. I'm tempted to film them, but that would be suicide, as I've only been granted permission to film the X-32. I've spent 10 months in the high desert shooting the X-Plane test flights. Every day is like an airshow. Am I really here?

July 2001 - Patuxent River, Maryland

Forty years after the Harrier vertical-takeoff-and-landing fighter first hovered, the Boeing X-32 hangs motionless in the air like some alien spacecraft. Throughout the competition many aerospace insiders haven't given the Boeing guys much of a chance of winning and even less respect. At this point in the battle, however, these guys seem like the team to beat.

I'm in the Lockheed Martin hangar when I learn that Judson's F-16 has crashed near Death Valley.

July 2001 - Edwards Air Force Base

After three weeks in Maryland filming Boeing hover-testing its X-32, I return to Edwards to shoot Lockheed Martin's first vertical landing of its X-35. Near the runway I meet up with freelance cameraman Judson Brohmer. Over the previous few months, Judson shot much of the air-to-air footage of the X-35A (the Air Force version of the X-35) for the film, and I've become close with him and his family. The next morning Judson is in the rear seat of an F-16 filming an Air Force test on another project. Several hours later I'm in the Lockheed Martin hangar when I learn that Judson's F-16 has crashed near Death Valley. Neither Judson nor the pilot was able to eject.

August 28, 2001 - The Pentagon

Around 8:30 in the morning I spend 25 minutes circling the Pentagon in a helicopter shooting aerials. Exactly two weeks later JSF Program Director General Michael Hough is attending a meeting on the tenth floor of a highrise building across the street from the Pentagon, when he and several others watch in horror as American Airlines Flight 77 crashes into the Pentagon's west side. The footage I shoot that morning represents the last aerial pictures taken of the Pentagon prior to the September 11th terrorist attack.

October 2001 - Palmdale, California

My first day of production on this long project was in Palmdale, so I decide to end it there with the Lockheed Martin team. I also have a film crew at Boeing in Seattle and another at the Pentagon. It's five years since my fateful meeting in Washington with Admiral Steidle, and it's time for the government to announce the winner of the most lucrative contract in military history.

For members of the winning team it's going to be one of the happiest days of their lives, but I hate to think how the losing team is going to feel. Both teams have performed so well it's hard to make an educated guess about who should or will win. As the press conference begins at the Pentagon, I can feel the tension rise in the hangar. The 200 Lockheed Martin team members are silent as the announcement is finally made.... Then there's an explosion of joy and celebration. It's an incredible moment, though I try to turn off my own excitement so I can capture the scene. As I film the Lockheed Martin team punching the air, my thoughts are on Frank Statkus and his Boeing team in Seattle.

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Boeing's X-32
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Lockheed Martin's X-35
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Boeing's X-32 (above) and Lockheed Martin's X-35 undergo test flights over Edwards Air Force Base in California.


The man who gave NOVA entreé to the Joint Strike Fighter competition: Rear Admiral Craig Steidle.


Mike Jorgensen (left) discusses the X-35 with Tom Burbage, executive vice president and general manager of the JSF program. At center is associate producer Neil Thomas.

Boeing X-32 first flight

Boeing's X-32A takes off on its inaugural flight, Boeing test pilot Fred Knox at the controls.

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X-35A midair refueling

High over California's Mojave Desert, Lockheed Martin's X-35A receives fuel from a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker during a test mission in November 2000.

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C-5 transport

Lesson #1 learned by the NOVA film crew at Edwards: Never take snapshots of your C-5 transport plane without official permission, even if your pilot gives the thumbs up.

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X-32 in hover
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Both X-Planes had to demonstrate they could hover in position close to the ground. Both succeeded.

JSF announcement

The moment it hears its X-Plane has won the competition, this JSF team goes ballistic. (To find out which team this is, see the main text at left.)

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Battle of the X-Planes Web Site Content
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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

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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

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Wing Designs

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Discover how airfoil shapes affect the way a plane flies.

Mike Jorgensen Mike Jorgensen is the producer of "Battle of the X-Planes." Based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, he is president of Myth Merchant Films, and his work has appeared on PBS, A&E, The Learning Channel, and other major television outlets.

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NOVA Home Find out what's coming up on air Listing of previous NOVA Web sites NOVA's history Subscribe to the NOVA bulletin Lesson plans and more for teachers NOVA RSS feeds Tell us what you think Program transcripts Buy NOVA videos or DVDs Watch NOVA programs online Answers to frequently asked questions