Officially named F-35 “Lightning II” in honor of the US World War 2 aircraft Lockheed P-38 Lightning, the F-35 equipped with a single engine capable of reaching Mach 2 and is able to take off and land vertically.
And although it is an aircraft with remarkable capabilities, especially in term of stealth, the F-35 program is considered one of the most expensive in aviation history and suffers from a very significant delay on the original calendar.
In the early 1990s, the US Department of Defense decided to launch the “Joint Strike Fighter” program to find a replacement, among others, to the F-16 fighter, the Fairchild A-10, the F-18 Hornet and the AV-8B Harrier.
Several companies including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and McDonnell Douglas proposed their project to the Department of Defense, but only the Boeing and Lockheed Martin projects were selected in November 1996. In the meantime, contracts were awarded for the construction of two prototypes per company. Lockheed Martin prototype was designated “X-35” and that of Boeing: “X-32”.
The Boeing aircraft was characterized by a large air intake under the cockpit, a large delta wing, two inclined vertical tail like those of the X-35 and the absence of horizontal tailplanes.
The first X-32 flight took place in September 2000 at the Edwards Air Force Base, the “Short Take Off and Vertical Landing” version made its first flight several months later, in March 2001.
As for the X-35, its silhouette was close to that of the F-22, which was also built by Lockheed Martin. The X-35 was also equipped with some of the F-22 technologies. It made its first flight in October 2000.
The X-35 “Short Take Off and Vertical Landing” version used a brand new system developed by Rolls-Royce and called “Integrated Lift Fan Propulsion System”. The jet engine nozzle could tilt completely downward while a large fan placed just behind the cockpit, allowed to balance the machine. This version made its first flight in June 2001.
The prototype testing of the two companies lasted during several months, but due to the X-32’s poor performance against the X-35, the Boeing project was eliminated on October 26, 2001, and it was decided to award Lockheed Martin the design contract of the future “Joint Strike Fighter” aircraft.
Today a little more than three hundred F-35s have been produced and to satisfy the different branches of the US defense and its allies, it was decided to decline the F-35 in 3 different versions.
The first version is the F-35A, a versatile variant optimized for ground attack, which should integrate the US Air Force to replace the F-16, the A-10, and to a lesser extent, the F-22.
But while replacing the F-16 appear to be easily feasible, replacing the A-10 could possibly never be done entirely.
Indeed the F-35 has a very limited carrying capacity compared to the A-10 which has eight points of carriage under its wings and which unlike the F-35 can drop a wide variety of weapons.
Also, in term of ground attack capability, the F-35 may never be able to reach the level of the A-10, which is equipped with the famous 30mm “GAU-8 / A Avenger” anti-tank gun. And unlike the A10, the F-35 does not have armor, which makes it vulnerable when attacking at very low altitude.
The second version of the F-35 is the F-35B, a variant able to take off and land vertically.
As for the X-35B Prototype, the F-35B has a vertically integrated fan in the fuselage, at the rear of the cockpit, as well as a jet engine nozzle that can be steered downwards. The vertical fan is connected to the F-35 jet engine by a drive shaft.
Some of the F-35’s vertical flight technologies were developed with the help of the Russian company Yakovlev based on the Yak-141 aircraft technologies.
The F-35B is the first mass-produced STOVL aircraft to reach supersonic speed. But because of the vertical fan position, the internal fuel capacity is significantly lower than that of an F-35A, greatly reducing the carrying capacity and autonomy of the F-35B.
The latest version of the F-35 is the F-35C, a version made to operate on aircraft carrier and intended primarily for the US Navy. This version has a greater wingspan than the F-35A and F-35B, which allows it to carry more fuel. The landing gear has been reinforced to support catapulting from an aircraft carrier, and the wing tips can be retracted to take up less space. The first successful aircraft carrier landing of the F-35C took place in November 2014 aboard the .
The F-35C should replace the first versions of the US Navy F-18 Hornet.
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