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
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 –
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
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
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.