PARIS -- It takes an incredible amount of time, money and political energy to build a new military aircraft, of any kind. It's easier for everyone to keep designs -- and, in many cases, the aircraft themselves -- that have been around for decades. The C-130. The F-15 and F-16. If, as some people believe, the F-35 is the last major manned fighter program, does that mean that the machine that makes it go, its jet engine, is at the end of history?
Absolutely not, said Bennett Croswell, head of military engines for jet-giant Pratt & Whitney. Pratt is well fixed, as engines go: It powers the F-15, many F-16s, the C-17, the F-22 and the F-35. But that doesn't mean it can just churn out copies of the same engines forever, Croswell said; there is plenty of room for new designs in both new and existing aircraft. "We think there's a great future for gas turbines," he said. "This is not a sunset industry."
Croswell said the next era for jet engines will be based around variable-cycle turbines, which can run in at least two modes, such as one for high speed and one for fuel efficiency. Pratt's F135 is one example: When the F-35B needs to perform a short takeoff, its engine has to spin up a lot of power to drive the lift fan behind the cockpit, then return to a traditional mode once the jet gets into the air and "transforms" back into a regular plane.
And like many of the defense firms here this year, Pratt & Whitney is pinning its hopes on the growth of the helicopter market, both for the U.S. and international customers. Croswell said Pratt plans to bid on an opportunity expected in a few years from the U.S. Army, for an advanced new turbine engine that can fly in both its Black Hawk and Apache helicopters. Pratt's engineers want to offer an engine that's more powerful and uses 25 percent less fuel, and also can be retrofitted to older-model helos with earlier engines.
But no surprise, Pratt's rival General Electric also will go for that opportunity, doubtless with innovations of its own. In fact, even though Air Force Maj. Gen. C.D. Moore pointed to a PowerPoint chart on Tuesday morning that said the F-35 Lightning II has a single engine -- Pratt's -- GE has a different story. On the outside of its "chalet" at the air show, it has a see-through schematic of an F-35 with its own F136 engine on board. Croswell dismissed this, saying GE's engine hasn't even flown yet, whereas Pratt's has "98 percent reliability" so far aboard the F-35.
So even though it's harder than ever to build a new military aircraft, and the basic technology in a jet engine has been around for decades, with competition like this there's no way it'll stand still.