Tuesday, 23 April 2013


Definitions of the word Chimera in Webster’s dictionary include: an imaginary monster compounded of incongruous parts, an illusion or fabrication of the mind, a conception or image created by the imagination but having no objective reality and an unrealizable dream.

Although considered to be creatures of myth Chimeras exist to this day, in the form of monsters made up of incongruous parts and, sadly, as unrealizable dreams. Some of them exist in the world of aviation.

The 1970s saw development and production of many outstanding aircraft which comprise much of the western world’s fighter inventory to this day. However a combination of service-life exhaustion and escalating threats requires the eventual, one hopes orderly, retirement of current fighter aircraft. (1)

The F-35 Lightning II is described by Lockheed Martin as a 5TH Generation, supersonic stealth fighter designed to replace a wide range of existing aircraft, including AV-8B Harriers, A-10s, F-16s, F/A-18 Hornets and United Kingdom Harrier GR.7s and Sea Harriers. According to the company the F-35 will be the most powerful single-engine fighter ever made.

In 2006 George Standridge of Lockheed Martin predicted that the F-35 would be four times more effective than legacy fighters in air-to-air combat, eight times more effective in air-to-ground combat, and three times more effective in reconnaissance and suppression of air defenses – while having better range and requiring less logistics support and having around the same procurement costs (if development costs were ignored) as legacy fighters. The design goals called for the F-35 to be the premier strike aircraft through 2040 and be second only to the F-22 Raptor in air superiority. (2)

The program's objective was to develop and deploy a technically superior and affordable fleet of aircraft capable of performing a wide range of missions in a variety of theaters. The single-seat, single-engine aircraft was being designed to be self-sufficient or part of  multisystem and multiservice operations, and to rapidly transition between air-to-surface and air-to-air missions while still airborne. To achieve its mission, the JSF was to incorporate low observable technologies, defensive avionics, advanced onboard and offboard sensor fusion, and internal and external weapons.

It was planned that the program would emphasize low unit-flyaway cost and radically reduced life-cycle costs, while meeting a wide range of operational requirements. Also hoped for was a stretch in combat radius which would mean that pilots could operate with reduced dependence on air refueling and have significantly greater time on station for close air support or combat air patrol missions.

In mid-January of 2013 the annual weapons-testing report overseen by J. Michael Gilmore, the Defense Department’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation was released. (3)

The report revealed that the government’s F-35 program office had changed performance specifications for all three JSF variants: the Air Force’s F-35A; the vertical-landing Marine Corps F-35B; and the carrier-launched F-35C flown mainly by the Navy.

The program announced an intention to change performance specifications for the F-35A, reducing turn performance from 5.3 to 4.6 sustained g’s and extending the time for acceleration from 0.8 Mach to 1.2 Mach by eight seconds,” Gilmore’s report stated.

The implications for frontline pilots are pretty serious. Less maneuverability makes the F-35 more vulnerable in a dogfight. And the slower acceleration means the plane can spend less time at top speed as a long, full-power transonic acceleration burns a lot of fuel.

This is not the first time the Pentagon has altered its standards to give the JSF a pass. In early 2012, the military granted the F-35 a longer takeoff run than originally required and altered the plane’s standard flight profile in order to claw back some of the flying range lost to increasing weight and drag. (4)

Despite the F-35 growing heavier, slower and more sluggish by the Pentagon’s own admission, Lockheed insists its product is still the second most maneuverable warplane in existence. For example company test pilot Billy Flynn says that the JSF accelerates better and flies at higher angles than every other fighter except the Lockheed-made F-22.

Other aviators called Lockheed’s boasts “fantastical.” An F-22 pilot expressed his doubt that the jet manufacturer has accurate data on the F-35′s flight energy and maneuverability so early in testing. “The reality is that I would be floored if they had accurate E-M diagrams right now,” the F-22 flier said.

In any event, the F-35 is likely to get even less maneuverable as development continues. Gilmore’s report warned that the F-35A’s tightly-packed airframe has essentially zero room for weight growth without losing nimbleness. “The program will need to continue rigorous weight management through the end of development to avoid performance degradation and operational impacts.”

Recently USAF Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, program executive officer overseeing the F-35 program, told Dutch lawmakers that the cost-per-flying-hour for the F-35A, which The Netherlands intends to buy, is $24,000, according to an Air Force spokeswoman. This would exceed the cost-per-flying hour of the F-16, currently flown by the Dutch Air Force, by at least ten percent (5)

These figures are characterized as “preliminary.” Though flight training has begun on the F-35A and testing continues, the data gathered is fresh and does not reflect an entire life’s worth of use. Ongoing durability testing will help program officials determine whether any parts or systems will require support that is not built into this figure.

It should be noted that the company's view of ownership cost is lower than that of the U.S. Airforce. Company officials had argued the cost of some subsystems, such as the electro-optical target system, or information technology systems used to support the aircraft, should not be included in the F-35 lifecycle estimate because they are not calculated in the price of operating legacy aircraft. This kind of approach does little for the prospective buyer who wants to know how much this aircraft is going to cost to fly.

In 7 July 2006, the U.S. Air Force officially announced the name of the F-35: Lightning II, in honor of Lockheed's World War II-era twin-prop P-38 Lightning and the Cold War-era jet, the English Electric Lightning. “The F-35 Lightning II will carry on the legacy of two of the greatest and most capable fighter aircraft of all time,” said Ralph D. Heath, president of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. “Just as the P-38 and the British Lightning were at the top of their class during their day, the F-35 will redefine multi-role fighter capability in the 21st century.(6)

The P-38 Lightning was built by Lockheed, now Lockheed Martin, the JSF program’s prime contractor. During World War II, the P-38 scored the most aerial victories of any U.S. Army Air Forces fighter in the Pacific theater. Designed as a high-altitude interceptor, the sleek P-38 evolved into a versatile aircraft that was also used for dive bombing, level bombing, ground strafing and photo-reconnaissance missions.

English Electric, maker of the Lightning jet, later became BAE Systems, a principal industrial partner on the JSF program. With its afterburners lit, the twin-engine Lightning could reach speeds of 1,500 miles per hour. In its day it represented a profound leap ahead in capability compared to the aircraft it replaced. It remained in service until 1988, largely because of its exceptional performance.

It is instructive to compare the P-38, the English Electric Lightning and the F-35 Lightning II. (Some of the basic numbers are included below)

A P-38 could carry up to 4000 pounds of ordinance. The Lightning F.35 could have been modified to carry up to 6000 pounds.  An F-35 can carry a maximum of 3000lbs internally. Far more weight, another 13,000lbs of ordinance, can be carried externally by the F-35 but this negates its oft praised Stealth and can reduce speed, range and maneuverability.

The P-38 had a top speed of just Mach .64 in comparison to the Lightning’s Mach 2.0+ and the F-35’s hoped for maximum of Mach 1.6. On the other hand the P-38 had a range of over 3,500 Km compared to the Lightning’s 1,370 Km and the F-35’s published range goal of 2,200 Km.

It is in the area of wing loading that we see some of the greatest differences. Wing loading is a useful measure of the general maneuvering performance of an aircraft. In aerodynamics, wing loading is the loaded weight of the aircraft divided by the area of the wing. An aircraft with lower wing loading will be able to take-off and land at a lower speed (or be able to take off with a greater load). It will also be able to turn faster. (7)

The P-38 had a  wing loading of figure 53.4lb/ft²(260.9kg/m²), the Lightning came in at 76 lb/ft²(370 kg/m²) while the F-35 has a wing loading of 107.7 lb/ft² (446 kg/m²). This is an incredibly small figure for a modern jet fighter expected and supposedly designed to maneuver against other aircraft. To put it in perspective even the not exactly sprightly F-4 Phantom could claim a wing loading of 78 lb/ft²(383 kg/m²).

As unlikely as it seems, these comparisons leave one with the odd thought that a combination of Vintage P-38s and English Electric Lightnings could achieve many of the goals and missions of the F-35 at lower costs and provide for a larger, more useful, Air Force.   

The F-35 is indeed a Chimera. It is “an imaginary monster compounded of incongruous parts, an illusion or fabrication of the mind, a conception or image created by the imagination but having no objective reality and an unrealizable dream.” It doesn’t work. The designers have tried to compound the parts of too many different aircraft and have achieved what can only charitably be called an unrealizable dream. It is too expensive to buy in the numbers needed. It is time to think again, think outside the box, and find alternatives to the aircraft program “too big to fail” which is failing.

37ft,10in (11.53m)
55ft,3in (16.8m)
51.4ft (15.67m)
52ft,0in (15.85m)
34ft,10in (10.6m)
35 ft (10.7 m)
12ft,10in (3.91m)
19ft,7 in (5.97m)
14.2 ft (4.33 m)
327.5ft² (30.43m²)
474.5ft² (44.08m²)
460 ft² (42.7 m²)
12,800lb (5,800kg)
31,068lb (14,092kg)
29,300lb (13,300kg)
21,600lb (9,798kg)
45,750lb (20,752kg)
70,000 lb(31,800 kg)
2 × Allison
@1,725 hp
1,194 kW each
2× Rolls-Royce
Avon 301R
@: 16,000 lbf
71.17 kN each
1 × Pratt&Whitney F135
@43,000 lbf
 191 kN
Mach .64, 443mph, 713km/h
Mach 2.0, 1,300 mph, 2,100 km/h   
Mach1.6+,1,200mph, 1,930 km/h
2,337mi (3,640km)
850mi (1,370 km)
1,200mi (2,220km)
44,000ft (13,400m)
54,000ft (16,000m) zoom >70,000 ft
60,000ft (18,288m)
Tested to 43,000ft
4,750ft/min (24.1m/s)
76 lb/ft²(370 kg/m²)
107.7 lb/ft²
(446 kg/m²)
4,000lb (1815kg)
6,000lb (2,720kg)
3,000lb internal
Up to 16,000lb

(1) F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Lightning II

(2) Lockheed Martin F22 and F35 5th Gen Revolution In Military Aviation

(3) DOD FILES, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF)

(4) Pentagon Downgrades Specs for Its Premier Stealth Jet — Again

(5) F-35 Ops Cost Exceeds F-16 By 10%

(6) 'Lightning II' moniker given to Joint Strike Fighter

(7) Wing Loading