Covering military aviation is a big part of my job, but it's not the only part. I also write about commercial aviation. So I've had a front-row seat to observe the rise, severe fall and ongoing recovery of the once-celebrated 787 production system.
and military aircraft programs can be very tricky, but I can't help make
connections between the 787 and that other major aircraft production programme with
global aspirations also launched earlier this decade: the Lockheed Martin F-35
Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), which is also called the Lightning II by the
who are not airliner watchers, Boeing's more-electric, mostly-composite 787 (pictured) is
innovating beyond mere systems and materials. In the aerospace industry, the
787 is also a fascinating experiment in globalization. Six major structural
producers in three different countries -
comparison, the F-35 industrial blueprint seems modest, but is nonetheless a
great leap even for an international defense program. The F-35's three major
structural producers are the
Both aircraft are being initially packaged as a family of three variants built on the same production line. (Interestingly, the fate of the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing F-35B is yet more secure than even the short-haul 787-3, which has now drifted off Boeing's public delivery schedule.) Both aircraft were selected by their respective industries to embrace globalized supply chains in new and radical ways.
After each program began after 2001, both have experienced roughly equal setbacks: first delivery of the F-35 has slipped 18 months after a weight problem forced a redesign; first delivery of the 787 has slipped 15-18 months after the experimental production system basically had a meltdown. Weight remains a design "challenge" for the 787, but the problem has not been severe enough to force Boeing to redesign the jet.
Most importantly perhaps, neither airframe has proven itself in flight. Although the first non-weight optimized F-35 prototype flew in December 2006, Lockheed has still only scratched the tiniest surface of a 6,000-hour flight test phase. The first 787 flight test aircraft is now scheduled to fly in the fourth quarter of this year to launch a roughly 3,000-hour flight test phase.
past two months, I've interviewed the head of the
How well Lockheed's industrial team applies the 787's lessons and avoid its mistakes will soon be determined. The F-35 must soon prove itself in the air. But, if Lockheed fails to execute, even an effective fighter can be sabotaged on the ground by a 787-like production meltdown.