The ATF competition recounted by one who was there…

Sherm Mullin, who was once part of the Lockheed Skunk Works team that developed mighty F-22 Raptor, shares his recollections of developing the single best air superiority fighter ever built in this paper he wrote at the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute. It’s definitely worth the read, lots of awesome insights.  

Here is a link to Mullin’s paper. Here is my retrospective of the program.


USAF shot… this bird is from the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley

Mullin confirms many details, which while known, are rarely discussed publically:

As 1989 unfolded, we conducted an internal competition to see which way was best for us to win the NATF portion of the competition. We gave Boeing more time to make their fixed-wing design work better. Finally in August 1989, Buehler strongly recommended that we select the swing-wing design. Our F-22 Team Program Office approved.

The team, working hard on every detail of our NATF design in late 1989 and early 1990, produced a very stealthy swing-wing fighter that could supercruise. It was very suitable for carrier operations. Most of the advanced integrated avionics system was identical to the system we had designed and prototyped for the Air Force. We felt very good about the NATF proposal we submitted in December 1990.

However, in early 1991, the Navy bailed out of the ATF program. They put all their carrier fighter aircraft eggs in one basket–the F-18E/F Hornet. It was a 20th century airplane, jack of several trades, and master of none. But by going with the F-18E/F, the Navy avoided risk. There is no doubt that the A-12 stealth attack aircraft program failure had scarred the Navy’s thinking for a generation. Navy leaders had lost their courage after decades of successfully pioneering excellent new carrier aircraft. They would not have a revolutionary new carrier aircraft in the early part of the 21st century. (Note: The Navy still got a vote in the ATF competition, and, as we found out later for certain, it cast it for our F-22 team.)

Personally, I always thought it was a real shame that the NATF was never built–it would have been one hell of a successor to the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. Ironically, the US Navy is only now getting a stealth fighter, but one without the sheer kinematics of what this jet could have been–and with twin engines to boot.

Some other interesting factoids:

Between Sept. 29 and Dec. 28 [1990], our [YF-22 ]team, with Abrams leading the charge, conducted one of the most intense and successful flight test programs in the history of aviation. This is what our team did:

• Flew 74 test flights

• Accumulated 92 flight hours

• Demonstrated and used in-flight refueling extensively

• Demonstrated supercruise (at about 1,000 miles per hour) with both airplanes

• Flew at speeds up to Mach 2 (about 1,400 miles per hour)

• Demonstrated engine thrust vectoring

• Demonstrated super maneuverability, from low speed to supersonic speed

• Demonstrated high speed maneuvers over 7 Gs

• Launched two types of air-to-air missiles from internal weapons bays

Too bad we didn’t build more of these jets–oxygen problems aside–it might be a decision that comes back to haunt us.

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