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article imageOp-Ed: Air frames and airheads- The F35 fighter costs fly higher

By Paul Wallis     Dec 2, 2011 in Technology
The new issues with the fighter that’s so stealthy it can’t even get into operation are air frame modifications. These new issues require planes in production to be modified. That’s not good, and buyers like Australia are getting restive.
These $111 million flying contractor retirement packages have been taking forever to get operational. They were originally supposed to cost $65 million. There’s not a lot of information which suggests that the extra $56 million is producing a better plane, either, just a more costly one. Depending on your ability and willingness to digest various forms of military supply chain-speak, consider these statements:
Vice Admiral Venlet (the admiral running the program) also criticised the Pentagon's decision to speed up deliveries of the new planes by having Lockheed Martin build production model airplanes even as flight testing was still under way.
US lawmakers and government watchdog groups have long questioned that approach, called concurrency, saying it added risk and cost to the program.
"Fundamentally, that was a miscalculation," Vice Admiral Venlet said.
He said more changes were required than hoped and new planes had to be torn apart for structural modifications to ensure they would last the full 8,000 flight hours planned.
Some observations:
1. Building production models while testing wouldn’t have done the Wright Brothers, or any aviation firm since, a lot of good. The idea is to get the thing into the air and make sure it stays there.
2. Taking planes apart to modify the airframe is like taking a building apart to modify the foundations while it’s being built. It’s not the greatest option around for homeowners or aircrew.
There’s a big cultural issue here, and it revolves around who’s doing the damn design, Lockheed or the pixies. Lockheed don’t need to be told how to design good planes. They’re famous for it. The new problems are numerous airframe issues, which suggests that someone’s been playing with the hard points and systems. That’s not exactly best design practice, and it suggests a lot of afterthoughts.
There is another approach to building warplanes. It’s based on designing a good platform, rather than a store window dummy version of a fighter. A case in point, ironically, is the Russian T50. It’s a plain Jane, much overpowered, simple design which looks like it can have any systems mounted. It has a lot of hard points and is currently designed to get into the air, rather than do a sort of fashion show of new systems. It’s also a very cheap plane by comparison.
From the Australian perspective, although it’s true the Royal Australian Air Force likes to have the latest, the latest expensive-everything spoiled brat of an aircraft isn’t necessarily a thrill by definition:
1. 8,000 flight hours equates to 333.3 days. The average life of a fighter in service is up to 20 years. That means this thing could be flown for a total time of about 15 days per year, or roughly 1 hour per day, over that period. What a bargain. Does it come with training wheels, too?
2. Given that half of a modern fighter’s life is spent in hangars undergoing equally expensive upgrades and maintenance, this fighter is risking becoming a real weekend warrior. What if we actually need to use it for something, like going to the shop to buy some milk? Do we need insurance, or will there be a special $50 million refuelling attachment for that?
3. Presumably it would also be preferred if nobody fights any long wars. Wouldn’t want to void the warranty, now would we?
4. We have thousands of miles of area to cover with these fantastically fabulous, frantically flagged, frilly, fiscally fraught, fiendishly funded, frequently foreseen, furtively flown, fatalistically fabricated, frivolous, flippant, facetious, funloving, frequently faulty, futuristically foppish, faddish, failing, fishy, finicky, ferally financial, fatuously famous, farcically fieldtested, flying f***ups (that’s 35Fs) and we’re paying for what, exactly? The joy of discovering new ways to spend money?
My old man was an industrial designer. When you design a product, you don’t design it on the basis of every bloody whim which blows in with the breeze. Lockheed know that. The air forces involved know that. Everybody who’s ever made a paper dart knows that. Maybe the talking furniture creating these production issues should know that.
Some of the most famous American planes, notably the Mustang, were designed on a “stick an engine on some wings and give it as much firepower as it can carry and maybe a place to put the pilot” basis. They were designed to be fighting planes, not exercises in accountancy.
The US builds the best fighters in the world, despite its insane culture of costs on top of costs. The F35 is at risk of becoming the first plane in history to be literally shot down by its own makers before it even gets into the air.
Here’s a little challenge for US aircraft designers- Can you build a fighter for $1 million? It needs an engine, wings, controls and perhaps (let’s go nuts) something to fire at someone. It can be made of plastic, paper, die cast, whatever. All it needs to do is get in the air and do its job.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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