F-35 vs. 787, part 2: Prototype hell

The twoaircraft are AA-1 and ZA001.

The formeris the first F-35 Joint Strike Fighter prototype completed in December 2006.

The latteris the first 787 prototype that was originally supposed to enter flight test abouteight months later, yet remains in the late stages of final assembly and 15months behind schedule.

Bothaircraft must be spectacular disappointments so far for Lockheed Martin andBoeing, respectively.


Considerthat the F-35 program’s AA-1 required 65,000 more labor hours to build thanplanned, a roughly 35% overrun, according to a March report by the Government AccountabilityOffice. Most of the delays were blamed on the wing and final assembly, both firmlycontrolled by Lockheed in the Team JSF industrial partnership.

But finalassembly was the least of the worries for AA-1. Lockheed realized in 2004 that amajor redesign was required to shed about 2,100 pounds from the airframe. Furtherchanges in production methods, propulsion output and operational requirements wereneeded to offset another roughly 2,700 pounds. In all, AA-1 is almost 5,000pounds too heavy, which equates to about one-eighth of the aircraft’s maximumweight.

Nonetheless,Lockheed and the joint program office decided in 2004 that assembling AA-1 wouldstill be worth the cost, even if the first prototype would become an instant anachronism.Subsequently, its limited value as a non-production representative flight testasset has been eroded by frequent groundings, including one that remainsongoing.

The storyof ZA001 is only slightly less tragic. After all, Boeing at least expects thisperpetual resident of hangar 40-26 in Everett, Washington, to one day enter operationalservice, albeit more than a year late and after one of the most severeproduction system meltdowns in the company’s deservedly proud history.


The fullstory of ZA001′s tormented upbringing has been superbly told from theperspective of true insiders by my blogging colleague Jon Ostrower, master ofthe ever-fascinating Flightblogger site on FlightGlobal.com.

But, tosummarize, what Boeing first portrayed as a slight delay caused by shortages ofkey parts and software mushroomed into a system-wide industrial breakdown. Ontop of that, Boeing discovered that the centre wing box would have to beredesigned. Continued production snafus, such as poor drilling by a single mechanic,have plagued Boeing’s recovery timeline.

Both manufacturershave since moved on from their disaster-prone prototypes. The next roughly 20F-35s and 787s are each in various stages of assembly, with Lockheed havingcompleted its first four flight test aircraft and Boeing still working oncompleting ZA001.

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4 Responses to F-35 vs. 787, part 2: Prototype hell

  1. ACD 19 August, 2008 at 2:30 pm #

    Somehow I doubt LM Aero would agree with “Subsequently, its limited value as a non-production representative flight test asset has been eroded by frequent groundings, including one that remains ongoing.”

    The groundings appear to have resulted from both important findings (the 270V issue) and AA-1 only issues (the one-off nacelle vent fans).

  2. Stephen Trimble 19 August, 2008 at 3:11 pm #

    Hmmm. I’m sure the AA-1 grounding issues are not a point of pride for LM Aero, but I don’t think they can disagree with the facts.

  3. RobH 19 August, 2008 at 6:54 pm #

    Mr. Trimble, as a frequent reader of your articles, I believe I have just read your two most cynical pieces to date.

    Sir, every prototype aircraft since the Wright Flyer has been overweight. Ask any engine man. That’s the DNA of building airplanes.

    And to characterize the hard work of thousands of folks building groundbreaking aircraft as ‘spectacular disappointments’? Shame on you! This is simply the result of mismanagement by just a few: Lack of respect for the seemingly endless supply of taxpayer dollars on one hand and lack of faith in a new production system on the other.

    Not that I want you to sugar-coat things, but I hope your next piece is a bit less dark. C’mon, ‘tormented upbringing’?

  4. Stephen Trimble 19 August, 2008 at 7:08 pm #

    Ok, tormented upbringing wasn’t my best line.

    I think maybe the reason these are bugging you is the way I’m telling this story. I’m not telling the story as a single package. The past two articles are limited to describing the darkest hours for both programs. So, by definition, it’s going to sound kind of harsh.

    It gets better with the next piece! Honest.

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