Confessions of a flight control freak

Early in my career on Flight I developed a fascination with fly-by-wire and the possibilities it offered for advanced configurations and new modes of flying. I wrote in excrutiating detail about a series of advanced flight-control demonstrators with extra bits attached to “relax stability” and basically fool the plane into thinking it was way more manoeuvrable than it really was.

They included MBB’s F-104 Control Configured Vehicle, British Aerospace’s Active Control Technology (ACT) Jaguar, and the USAF’s Advanced Fighter Technology Integration (AFTI) F-16. Two that particularly caught my imagination were Rockwell’s unmanned HiMAT and Grumman’s forward swept wing X-29.

A lot of that had to do with the great people I interviewed, who responded to my engineering background by putting aside the marketing brochures and explaining how things really worked. I learned more about how aircraft are designed and manufactured in those interviews than in three years of university and two years in industry.


HiMAT and X-29 were two expressions of the same technology – aeroelastic tailoring: the ability to control the structural response of a wing to aerodynamic loads using the directional strength properties of composite laminates. In the X-29, aeroelastic tailoring allowed the wing to work backwards (which has its advantages). Digital fly-by-wire enabled the X-29, and paved the way for fighters to come (all of them with their wings the right way round).

Here’s that hall of FBW fame…

1979 – MBB F-104 CCV (, Johan Visschedjik collection)

1980 – AFTI F-16 (NASA photo)

1980 – Rockwell HiMAT (NASA photo)

1981 – BAe ACT Jaguar (, Johan Visschedjik collection)

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2 Responses to Confessions of a flight control freak

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