The F-35 is a 5th generation stealth multirole aircraft, capable of performing close air support, tactical bombing and achieving air superiority. It has three different configurations; one is a conventional takeoff and landing variant (CTOL) which serves the U.S.A.F, the second is a short takeoff and vertical landing variant (STOVL) made for the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.K. Royal Navy/Air Force, and the third is a carrier variant (CV) for the U.S. Navy. The F-35’s designs and construction are lead by Lockheed Martin Corporations, and supported by Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems and Pratt & Whitney which participate as partners. It has not entered U.S’s operational service yet, and it isn’t clear yet which nation will be the first to receive it.
The U.S’s need for the F-35 came in 1996 due to the rise in maintenance cost of existing aircraft. Many aircrafts had to be replaced, and reproducing them did not pay as well as developing a new type of aircraft. So a new project was made to replace all of United States’ lightweight fighters and attack aircraft; the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), which aimed for developing an affordable, lightweight, stealth enabled fighter, with the ability to take off from short runways and land vertically. The new aircraft’s efficiency in air-to-air combat would have to be four times larger than those of legacy fighters, eight times larger in air to ground role, three times larger in reconnaissance and also have improved range. It would be good enough to replace the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the F/A-18 Hornet, the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the AV-8B Harrier II altogether! The program cost reached 40 billion dollars, mainly paid by the United States, and also supported by UK, Netherlands, Italy, Canada, Turkey, Australia, Norway, Denmark, Israel and Singapore.
The contracts and money (750 million dollars for every competitor) for the development were awarded to Lockheed Martin which developed the X-35, and Boeing which developed the X-32. Lockheed martin decided to base the X-35 on their successful F-22 Raptor and make it land vertically by using the plane’s exhaust and a shaft-driven lift fan, using the main engine to gain more thrust. Unlike the X-35, Boeing’s X-32 was designed to be a delta-wing fighter and land using its fan exhaust alone.
While the competition was intense and both X-35 and X-32 met or exceeded all requirements, Boeing’s X-32 had major drawbacks that were not familiarized with the X-35:
-The X-32 could not perform short takeoffs, unlike the X-35 (in the STOVL variant), which could use its lift fan to shorten the needed runway’s length.
-Vertical landing also proved to be an obstacle for the X-32, when it was found that during the landing hot air circulated from the exhaust back to the main engine, causing it to overheat and weakening the thrust, thus risking a crash. The X-35 avoided the “engine choke” problem by a coincidence-the airflow released by the lift fan prevents the exhaust’s hot gases from reaching the inlets, thus creating an “invisible wall” that separates between the airplane’s outtakes and intakes.
-Also, the X-35’s lift fan lightens the burden put on the engine during vertical landings, and thus preserves its lifespan- unlike the X-32…
-Furthermore, the X-32’s delta wings did not fit naval service, and although Boeing came up with a new and more agile prototype design, there was no time to change it.
-Lastly, the X-32’s (ugly) design was never tested before, and could show new and unexpected problems.
On 26 October 2001 the contract and money (18.9 billion dollars) for System Development and Demonstration (SDD) were awarded to Lockheed Martin, whose X-35 proved itself better than Boeing’s X-32 by outperforming it consistently.
Naming the new airplane was not an obvious task- the main argument was whether to call it F-24, as the next aircraft entering United States’ service (after the YF-23) or F-35, which fits its earlier title “X-35”. After many discussions, it was officially named F-35. The F-35 was named “Lightning ll” in order to honor Lockheed Martin’s World War II-era twin-prop P-38 Lightning. Because the F-35 has 3 different variants, the name “Lightning ll” might not serve all F-35s. That name was dumped before, when it was given to the F-22 for the same reason, and changed later to “Raptor”.
The F-35’s shape reminds Lockheed’s earlier made F-22, although it is smaller and has only one engine. Its capabilities are second only to those of the F-22 Raptor, and as mentioned before, they include a short takeoff and vertical landing abilities thanks to its lift fan and thrust vectoring nozzle. The lift fan also grants the F-35 a larger payload capacity, which enables the F-35 to carry much more weapons-even more than the F-22! It also reduces the damage dealt by the aircraft’s hot exhaust to runways/aircraft carrier decks during vertical takeoffs/landings by cooling it with its own cold air flow. However, it often proves to be unnecessary and add extra weight during conventional takeoffs/landings, or while performing horizontal flights.
The USAF has conducted an analysis of the F-35's air-to-air performance against all 4th generation fighter aircraft currently available, and has found the F-35 to be at least four times more effective. It is expected to be mass produced with about 5000 airplanes manufactured through 2040 as a worldwide leading airplane. Future plans of creating self-flying aircraft using artificial high-intelligent computers instead of pilots suggest that the F-35 might be the last manufactured manned fighter.