Boeing Aircraft Photo
It was his life on the line yesterday, so test pilot Dennis O'Donoghue had the last word. "I know I don't have to say this, but I'm going to say it anyway," he began, looking at the two dozen engineers and technicians gathered before dawn in a trailer at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, next to one of the most unusual aircraft in the world.
O'Donoghue, 43, was about to climb into Boeing Co.'s entry in the contest to build the Joint Strike Fighter and try to make it do something no supersonic jet had ever done: zoom over an airfield, slow to a stop in the air and land straight down like a helicopter.
"If we don't get the vertical landing today, we'll get it tomorrow," O'Donoghue said. "If we don't get it tomorrow, we'll get it Friday. There's no need to push any limits. If the winds aren't there, they aren't there. That's just the way it is." No one disagreed. But in truth, enormous pressure was on all of them to make the test work. Whole corporations can rise and fall on a program the size of the Joint Strike Fighter, which is expected to be worth $200 billion -- the biggest Pentagon contract in history. Boeing is competing with Lockheed Martin Corp. for the job. The military plans to select a winner in October. No matter which company wins, the project will employ thousands of workers at subcontractors all over the country.
Experts say the Joint Strike Fighter could become the world's most popular warplane, with an export market worth at least another $200 billion. Britain is already investing more than $2 billion in the program. Some in the military and the Bush administration have doubts about putting so much into one program, especially a plane that might not have the range to reach the unpredictable, far-off conflicts that seem likely in the future. A flaw now in the program's most challenging technology could derail it.
In a sense, though, all that big-picture stuff was secondary to the Boeing workers assembled yesterday morning at Patuxent River. They have lived with the machine from concept through rivets for five years or more, many of them spending months away from their families. They've worked round the clock since bringing the test plane, called the X-32B, to Patuxent River on May 11. Finally they would get to see whether it worked. "I've been away from home for 2 1/2 years," said maintenance manager Dean Ramsey, 58, whose wife is in Seattle but who helped build the plane at Boeing's lab in California. "This is what we came here for."
If only the wind would cooperate. Ramsey, who has the grandfatherly face of Wilford Brimley and the build of an offensive tackle, left the airfield at 5 p.m. Tuesday, slept a few hours in his hotel room and returned shortly after midnight. Though he doesn't like his crew to see his mushy side, Ramsey often walks through the darkened hangar at that hour, turns on the lights and spends time alone just soaking up the ungainly beauty of the thick-bodied X-32B. But not yesterday. Others were there when he arrived, going over checklists and inspecting the plane. Shortly after 4 a.m., the jet was gassed up and ready to go, an hour ahead of schedule. Early morning is good for test flights because the cooler air puts less stress on experimental equipment. Under the strict safety regulations that govern test flights, the team needed winds of from 4 to 10 knots from the northwest to complete the dangerous hover landing.
The forecast from the night before had called for strong gusts. But yesterday morning dawned so still that a lack of wind was a greater worry. With the plane set to land in a special hover pit, a breeze was needed to blow out hot exhaust that could otherwise stall the engine. During the 5 a.m. preflight briefing, pilot O'Donoghue and leaders of the test team agreed that if wind was a problem, they would try to wait it out. No unnecessary risks, of course, but the program director, Frank Statkus, had flown out from Seattle for the test. Several Air Force and Navy officers were in from Washington. O'Donoghue's wife and four of his five children would be watching.
And the Sunday before, at a test site in California, rival Lockheed Martin put its version of the Joint Strike Fighter through two "press-ups" -- the plane rose straight up 25 feet, hovered for half a minute, then dropped back down. Good, but not as momentous as an actual flight followed by vertical landing. The only other jet that can do that is the British-made Harrier, but that 1960s-vintage plane cannot go faster than the speed of sound or evade radar. With the sun just peeking over the Chesapeake Bay, O'Donoghue took off at 6 a.m. and circled out from the field. The orange windsock near the control tower hung limp. After one trial pass, a slight breeze began to stir from the northwest.
"I think we got four knots!" shouted Air Force Col. Mike Poore, who is in charge of monitoring the Boeing program for the Defense Department and who stood in a crowd of nearly 100 onlookers near the runway. Two miles out over the bay, O'Donoghue flipped a switch from "normal" to STOVL flight, or short takeoff/vertical landing. The plane's computers ran an automatic check of the hover system, then lighted a green "deploy" signal. O'Donoghue hit the "flow" switch, which diverted the jet engine's powerful thrust from the rear of the plane to two nozzles beneath it. The X-32B crept over the air-station runway at a mere 60 knots, about a third of its ordinary landing speed. O'Donoghue's left thumb turned a wheel on the throttle that rotated the thrust nozzles straight down, and he hung over the hover pit as though suspended from a string. He sank to 50 feet, then paused.
Ramsey sat below in a white maintenance truck, looking almost directly up at the roaring plane. This was the part he half-dreaded. He knew every inch of the machine, inside and out, and had seen it run through thousands of hours of simulations. But, he said, as it came down with nothing under it but superheated air and hard concrete, he fought to keep disastrous images out of his mind. Moments later, at 6:42 a.m., the X-32B gently touched down. Onlookers, watching from four-tenths of a mile away, cheered. "Yes!" shouted Poore, the Air Force overseer. "There it is, my man!" he said, high-fiving Boeing chief test pilot Fred Knox. "Every meeting this morning in D.C. is getting interrupted," Knox said as men in dress shirts and uniforms stopped applauding and whipped out cell phones.
Among the phoners was Sean Hanrahan, manager of Navy aviation programs for competing contractor Lockheed Martin. "Just checking it out," confessed Hanrahan, binoculars around his neck. "It was impressive. Aviation history is being made. . . . Even though there's competition, the heart of the matter is, if you like airplanes and are into seeing the newest and latest . . . it's just fascinating to see." Lockheed Martin's plane, called the X-35B, is expected to make the same type of flight next week in California, he said. O'Donoghue refueled and made one more vertical landing, this one an even trickier descent over flat runway instead of the hover pit. Then he taxied back to his hangar and an ecstatic crowd. Ramsey -- wearing a shirt that read "Crush the Evil Empire" in a joking reference to Lockheed Martin -- teared up as he hugged O'Donoghue's 6-year-old son, Brendan. The tall, blue-eyed test pilot worked the crowd like a returning astronaut.
Debbie Wunderlich, an engineer from engine maker Pratt & Whitney, embraced O'Donoghue, then pulled away with a start. "God," she said, "what do we do now?" The answer was: They all partied last night, then took today off. Then we've got to be back out here Friday morning again," Ramsey said. It's nice to get to this point, but we've got the rest of the program to work on.