On this day in business and aviation history ...
Dec. 15 is an important day in cutting-edge aviation history. Two advanced aircraft took their first flights on this day: Lockheed Martin's (NYSE:LMT) F-35 in 2006, and Boeing's (NYSE:BA) 787 Dreamliner in 2009. Boeing's next-gen passenger jet has since had a highly public (and highly flawed) carrier launch, but the United States' fighter jet of the future is still years from entering military service.
Air superiority from day one -- in theory
The F-35 began its life a decade before its first flight, when the Pentagon first signed a development contract for the Joint Strike Fighter program with both Lockheed and Boeing. The Joint Strike Fighter program was meant to replace multiple existing military jet fighters. It required one common design utilizing three variants: a conventional takeoff and landing version, a carrier-focused fighter adapted for mechanically assisted takeoffs and landings, and one fighter capable of both short takeoffs and vertical landings.
The two contractors submitted their prototypes in 2001, with Lockheed's X-35 beating out Boeing's X-32 for the final contract. The F-35 evolved from the X-35, with the final design five inches longer and one inch higher in the fuselage, and with a larger weapons bay in one of the variants. Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC) and BAE Systems were selected as Lockheed's primary technology and component suppliers, and Pratt & Whitney supplies the engine.
Initial manufacturing began in 2003. The first flight, undertaken by the conventional takeoff and landing variant, took place five years later, on Dec. 15, 2006.
Unfortunately, the F-35 program has been plagued with cost overruns and production delays as Lockheed struggles to meet the Pentagon's requirements for nearly 2,500 aircraft across three platforms. The F-35 has become a symbol of military wastefulness, prompting former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to vent that "the culture of endless money that has taken hold must be replaced by a culture of restraint."
A 2011 feature in The Atlantic titled "The F-35: A Weapon That Costs More Than Australia" is filled with damning indictments of the program and the military culture that has allowed it to grow into such a huge expense to the United States. Author Dominic Tierney is one of many who have now spoken out on against the F-35, which appears to have a rapidly diminishing purpose in the drone-driven asymmetric battlefield with which the American has become most familiar.
Although the United States is by far Lockheed's largest customer for the F-35, several other friendly nations around the world have contributed both development funding and have placed orders for several hundred F-35s. They will have to wait for some time, as the American military doesn't expect to put the new fighters into service until at least 2017.
The Dreamliner takes flight
Boeing's 787 has been subject to many delays throughout its production. Originally announced as the "7E7" in early 2003, the first 787 didn't enter construction until 2007. Its first flight, originally planned for August 2007, was pushed back at least six times, until the big bird finally flew on Dec. 15, 2009. It took another two years to get finished 787s to airliners, with All Nippon Airways of Japan receiving the first finished craft in the third quarter of 2011.
Boeing's 787 fact sheet claims that it uses 20% less fuel than other similarly sized airplanes, thanks in part to a higher use of composite materials in construction, but moreso because of advanced jet engines from General Electric (NYSE:GE) and Rolls-Royce. Spirit Aerosystems (NYSE:SPR) is Boeing's most critical partner in this endeavor, as it supplies both the fuselage and the flight deck components, the two largest parts of the 787. Boeing passed 1,000 orders for the Dreamliner last month, and more than 900 remain unfulfilled, a backlog that amounts to nearly $200 billion worth of airplanes yet to be delivered.