F-35 vs 787, part 1: Rise, fall and recovery

Coveringmilitary aviation is a big part of my job, but it’s not the only part. I alsowrite 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.

Relating commercialand military aircraft programs can be very tricky, but I can’t help makeconnections between the 787 and that other major aircraft production programme withglobal aspirations also launched earlier this decade: the Lockheed Martin F-35Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), which is also called the Lightning II by the US military.


For thosewho are not airliner watchers, Boeing’s more-electric, mostly-composite 787 (pictured) isinnovating beyond mere systems and materials. In the aerospace industry, the787 is also a fascinating experiment in globalization. Six major structuralproducers in three different countries – Italy,Japan and the USA — are not just building up parts andshipping them to Boeing’s final assembly center north of Seattle. Boeing’s Tier 1 suppliers areendowed with the unprecedented responsibility to design, build and certificate completeaircraft sections, to include the electronics, software and computers embedded inthe structures.

Bycomparison, the F-35 industrial blueprint seems modest, but is nonetheless agreat leap even for an international defense program. The F-35′s three majorstructural producers are the USA‘sLockheed (nose and wings) and Northrop Grumman (center fuselage) and the UK‘s BAESystems (aft fuselage). The international production system will expand as annualorders begin to escalate from handfuls into dozens starting in 2010. TurkishAerospace Industries (TAI) is responsible for delivering center fuselages after2012. At the same time, Italy‘sAlenia Aeronautica, an acknowledged key culprit in the 787 production meltdown, willbe ramping up production of wings for the F-35.

Bothaircraft are being initially packaged as a family of three variants built onthe same production line. (Interestingly, the fate of the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landingF-35B is yet more secure than even the short-haul 787-3, which has now driftedoff Boeing’s public delivery schedule.) Both aircraft were selected by theirrespective industries to embrace globalized supply chains in new and radicalways.


After eachprogram began after 2001, both have experienced roughly equal setbacks: firstdelivery of the F-35 has slipped 18 months after a weight problem forced aredesign; first delivery of the 787 has slipped 15-18 months after the experimentalproduction 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 redesignthe jet.

Mostimportantly perhaps, neither airframe has proven itself in flight. Although thefirst non-weight optimized F-35 prototype flew in December 2006, Lockheed hasstill only scratched the tiniest surface of a 6,000-hour flight test phase. Thefirst 787 flight test aircraft is now scheduled to fly in the fourth quarter ofthis year to launch a roughly 3,000-hour flight test phase.

Over thepast two months, I’ve interviewed the head of the US government’s F-35 joint programoffice and the lead production executives for Lockheed and Northrop. In eachconversation, a key theme was the lessons learned for the F-35 from theperspective of the 787 experience. After all, the F-35 flight test phase and productionrate increase is less urgent (read: slower) than Boeing’s commercially-funded program,but is less than three years away.

How well Lockheed’sindustrial team applies the 787′s lessons and avoid its mistakes will soon bedetermined. The F-35 must soon prove itself in the air. But, if Lockheed failsto execute, even an effective fighter can be sabotaged on the ground by a 787-likeproduction meltdown.

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12 Responses to F-35 vs 787, part 1: Rise, fall and recovery

  1. Fred from Canuckistan . . . 18 August, 2008 at 5:16 pm #

    For even more giggles, you should add the A400M project to the list of late & over budget aircraft projects.

    Summer is almost gone and another milestone is about to slip into the mists of over-blown rhetoric from Airbus Marketing types.

    The question now isn’t if the A400M will fly in 2008, it is now if the C130 testbed aircraft will get off the ground in 2008.

  2. Stephen Trimble 18 August, 2008 at 5:40 pm #

    Do I sense a note of bitterness, perhaps, Mr. Canuckistan? Canada got screwed on the A400M engine, as I recall.

    Think there’s any chance that Sarkozy et al may cut their losses and beg PWC to bring back the PW800?

  3. Stephen Trimble 18 August, 2008 at 6:08 pm #

    This blog is humbled by your presence, sir! An actual DEW Line vet!

  4. Royce 18 August, 2008 at 6:18 pm #

    “Do I sense a note of bitterness, perhaps, Mr. Canuckistan? Canada got screwed on the A400M engine, as I recall.”

    Kind of puts Europeans now constant harping about American protectionism into perspective, doesn’t it?

  5. Stephen Trimble 18 August, 2008 at 6:31 pm #

    Well, maybe. Except I think that most European countries embrace non-protectionism in the defense market as an economic necessity, and a convenient one since their foreign policy doesn’t really justify a standalone defense industrial base. France and Sweden stand apart as the only two European countries that have refused to outsource combat aircraft purchases. In that way, those are two the most like the USA, which has refused to outsource any modern combat aircraft except for the AV-8B, and, most recently, the AC-27J.

  6. Royce 18 August, 2008 at 7:41 pm #

    Did the U.S. approach to combat aircraft occur because of protectionism, or because it wanted the best aircraft for its needs at the time the aircraft were procured? I’m not up on all the history of combat aircraft, but what would the European-sourced alternatives to the F-16 and F-15 have been at the time of selection? Or for the C-17? Or for the A-10? (those aren’t rhetorical questions, either- I’d be interested in knowing whether viable alternatives existed at the time any of these aircraft were bought by the U.S.).

  7. Stephen Trimble 19 August, 2008 at 2:43 pm #

    I know there’s a raging debate about which fighter is better: the F-16 or the Mirage 2000. Both were on the market at roughly the same time. I don’t think there’s any hint that the USAF ever considered buying the Mirage, rather than develop its own fighter even if some think the Mirage may be slightly better. (I don’t think that, but it’s at least open for debate.) Is that protectionism?

    Two decades later, there was an attempt by the Eurofighter consortium to sell the Typhoon to the USAF as an F-16 replacement, but that of course went no where.

  8. HerkEng 20 August, 2008 at 3:29 am #

    I think the companies should be penalized…just like in construction when you do not make a deadline. What happened to the days when planes were drawn up by drunken men after work in a bar on a napkin, Designed with slid-rules and calculators and they were able to fly and deliver the plane under budget and before the deadline.

    You would think with all this technology that something would go right…

    Hell (yes, bitter) Look at the C-130J….not even that great of a leap. A 50+ year old design and they still managed to make it worse then the original and on top of that, over priced and way late. Now over ten years old, they are still trying to fix the problems.

  9. happy jack 22 August, 2008 at 8:24 am #

    Modern technology?
    Which aerospace project has been on time and within budget since the introduction of he CAD systems in use today.
    There is also a huge emphasis on project managing and engineer’s specialization and the use of machines.
    In era C130 was conceived the emphasis was on getting the most from skilled craftsmen and operators with incentive bonuses. All we have today is directors, managers and CAD jockeys whom are happy to sit around the table and talk the project to death without anyone wanting to make a decision; thus we can’t deliver on time or to cost.

  10. Tom 24 August, 2008 at 10:21 pm #

    I was surprised by the article to compare these aircraft but on reflection it is well considered. They both represent the best AND worst of todays aerospace. A few good men have taken bold steps forward to advance the development of aircraft, their leadership has been inspirational and the many would not believe the magnitude of their impact on the industry. At this stage of the projects however the industry has failed to recognise the importance of the few and directed them elsewhere to hand over to those who on paper are more ‘right’ for this stage of the project but do not have the dedication and background. For Boeing this is the result. I hope F-35 will fare better. Both terrific aircraft, both the result of the tremendous dedication of a few good men. For Airbus I’m afraid the 400M lacks these special individuals who have made the 787 and f-35 the best pieces of kit on the planet, not for today but for tomorrow.

  11. LowObservable 25 August, 2008 at 2:32 pm #

    “Fascinating experiment in globalization… major producers… are not just building up parts [but are] endowed with the unprecedented responsibility to design, build and certificate complete aircraft sections..”

    I thought that was an outstanding innovation too, when I saw it in Toulouse in 1975.

  12. Stephen Trimble 25 August, 2008 at 4:17 pm #

    Mr. Sweetman,

    I’m an American, so anything Airbus does doesn’t count!

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