Baby's First Afterburner


For now - and for the next few years - the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is the proverbial baby of the aerospace industry family.

Every first this infant aircraft design makes will be oood and ahhd over, simply by virtue of it being the baby. Even the cranky uncles (like me) will crack a smile.

And so it goes with the first lighting of the F-35s afterburner during a takeoff.This great piece written by my old colleague (okay, ex-boss) Graham Warwick describes the moment earlier this week that the F-35s 40,000lb-thrust monster of an engine went thermonuclear.

That being said, lighting an afterburner is one of the simplest tricks of the aerospace engineering profession, dating back to the dawn of the jet age in the 1950s. With the right tools, you can even try it at home. Just spray kerosene into a blast of super-heated air and watch what happens. (Okay, maybe dont.)

This whole show over the JSF is cute for now. But, just like a baby who grows into a toddler and eventually an adolescent, the enthusiasm for some of its personality quirks will fade. Some features may become downright annoying.

How will that afterburning engine of the JSF be appreciated in 15 or 20 years, I wonder?

It is sometimes said that the JSF is the last manned fighter to be built, and that may yet prove true, although the jury is still out.

But its arguably a lock that the F-35 will be the last fighter designed without regard to the rate of specific fuel consumption.

Two trends in aerial warfare are clear: gas-guzzlers are out and engine efficiency is in. Long-range strike, the object of the air forces current high-tech fixation, demands an aircraft that hoards gas like it was liquid gold. Super-speed will still be desirable, but for the first time speed will not be the over-riding criteria if it means damaging engine efficiency.

-- Stephen Trimble

Christian adds...

Shortly after Steves post, auditors at the Government Accountability Office released a report recommending the Pentagon revise its production schedule, reducing F-35 yearly buys.

GAO is recommending that DoD limit the annual production quantities to no more than 24 aircraft per year until each variants basic flying qualities have been demonstrated in flight testing now scheduled in the 2010 timeframe.

This comes after congressional backlash to an Air Force request for two of the still-experimental jets in the 2007 emergency wartime supplemental budget.

The Air Force wanted to buy the next-generation jets to replace an F-16 and an F-15 lost in combat overseas. But congressional watchdogs, including Sen. John McCain, argued that the planes wouldnt be ready for years, and should thus be excluded from the wartime bill.

Facing the funding denial on Capitol Hill, the Bush administration blinked, nixing the JSFs from the supplemental in amendments sent to Congress March 9. And as the estimated $623 billion program marches on, count on more budget tussles when the JSF bills come due.

(hat-tip to NC for the gouge)

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