Saturday, June 13, 2009

Mission-X Sunrise - X-35B

If you are a part-time aviation photographer like me, once in a while you get to participate in what we like to call "one-time-good-deals." This was one of them. In July of 2001 the Lockheed Martin team (including Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems) and Boeing were locked in a hotly contested fly-off for the Joint Strike Fighter contract. In the midst of this competition, Lockheed Martin managed to pull off one of their patented PR coups that they are justly famous, or infamous for, depending on whose side you're on at the moment. On July 20 and 26 they flew their X-35B STOVL (Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing) test aircraft through a "Mission-X" profile.

Mission-X has been described as the "Holy Grail" of aeronautics. It has long been a dream of designers to build an airplane that can fly supersonic yet take-off and/or land vertically. Several aircraft have done both parts, but not on the same flight or sortie (mission). The X-35B became the first aircraft to do so. After making a short take-off of less than 500 feet, it went to altitude and flew supersonic, then returned to make a vertical landing. More impressively, it did it at Edwards AFB (about 2000 feet altitude) and, in a subsequent test, with a 10,000 lb fuel load.

I was fortunate enough to witness the July 26 flight test. This shot was taken as the Sun broke the Eastern horizon. The X-35B, with BAE test pilot Simon Hargreaves in the cockpit, was doing final systems checks before taxi. Once he was under way, we were taken to the runway and got to see the take-off and return vertical landing on the Mission-X flight and the subsequent hot-refueling, second take-off and heavy-load hover and vertical landing test flight. I'll post some of those shots another day. Needless to say it was a most impressive performance. It was then that I became convinced that Lockheed Martin would win the competition.

And so they did.

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