The Main Event for the 2021 Gathering of Eagles was billed as The Battle of the X-Planes, in which nine veterans representing both sides of that historic fighter aircraft design and fly-off competition re-lived the bloodless battle of two decades ago.
A bit earlier in the program, the Foundation honored the producer of a parallel version of the unprecedented $2.5 billion government contact duel between Boeing’s X-32 and Lockheed Martin’s X-35.
Michael “Mike” Jorgensen was among the Honored Teams for his Emmy award-winning documentary “The Battle of the X-Planes.” He holds the distinction of being the only filmmaker ever to be granted inside access to classified Department of Defense weapons competition. His documentary shows up frequently on PBS channels. Jorgensen said the five years he spent producing the documentary “recalibrated my ideas of what high quality was,” and called the resulting video “a valuable STEM education tool.”
Asked how he dealt with confidentiality issues in going back and forth between the competing manufacturers, Jorgensen instantly quipped, “Cash,” drawing the biggest laugh of the evening.
Meanwhile, back in the on-stage arena, panelists scored telling and candid observations and plausible theories about how and why Lockheed won, and Boeing didn’t. They quickly got past the old notion that Boeing’s X-32 was just the ugly sister, compared with Lockheed’s more stylish configuration. One panelist remembers that Boeing management’s response was, “We’re taking it to war, not the junior prom.”
Pilots of both the aircraft designs in a specified range of flight and mission configurations and profiles attested to high qualities of handling and performance. But one possible explanation for the final decision focused not on the planes themselves, but on the distinctly different corporate cultures of the two prime contractors.
Lockheed Martin’s corporate philosophy was driven and shaped by legends and lore about technological miracles emerging from its fiercely independent magic shop, The Skunk Works, where risk aversion was viewed as a character flaw. And Lockheed has a long tradition of building superior fighter planes, starting with the P-38 and rolling through the generations of such high-performance jets as the T-33, F-104 Starfighter, U-2, and TR-1, F-117 Nighthawk, A-12, and SR-71.
Boeing, by contrast, hadn’t initiated a fighter program since the end of World War II, when it expanded its big bomber and military transport production lines to eventually dominate the world of civil air transportation with a legacy fleet of jetliners that changed incrementally to meet world market demands. Boeing’s corporate culture encouraged low-risk projects. The company’s risk management portfolio was channeled into strategic acquisitions or mergers.
Rockwell built Space Shuttle Orbiters. Boeing bought Rockwell.
McDonnell-Douglas created the “Phantom Works” for prototyping advanced products and technologies, including highly classified programs. Boeing bought McDonnel-Douglas.
In the matter of random thrills, brainteasers, rude surprises and lessons learned too late to be useful, panelists offered many examples, one of the finest being:
The Pentium Chip conundrum
It was Rick Rezabek, honoree for the Lockheed-Martin, Northrop Grumman, Pratt & Whitney Flight Test and Engineering Team, who brought to light the shadowy warning that without an exotic new breed of memory chip, the X-35’s entire flight controls computer could fail.
It was, the rumors asserted, “The Pentium Chip.” Great, What does it cost? Who makes it? How soon can we get it? The answers to each question were along the lines of “We don’t know.” “Nobody does.” “You might get it in a year and a half.” Eventually, the mysterious Pentium Chip appeared overnight, in smart phones, microwave ovens, and Ford pickup trucks. Functioned just as word-of-mouth advertising said it would.
And Rezabek, who was chief engineer and product manager was pleased to report that 700 F-35 offspring of the X-35 were delivered in July alone. He would know best about that kind of thing, as his byline appears on the 10-page history of the Battle of the X-Planes.
Reflecting on the journey, Rezabek wrote:
“In just four years aircraft were designed and built. They were tested in the air for just under a year. Both teams’ designs demonstrated the capabilities of an Air Force multi-role fighter. They showed carrier suitability through hundreds of Field Carrier Landing Practice approaches for the Navy, and they both showed that they could provide Short Takeoff and vertical landing operations for the Marine Corps, Royal Air Force, and Royal Navy.
“Both teams demonstrated levels of reliability unheard of in X-Planes, both flying from Edwards to Pax River during their flight test programs.”
He concluded, “The government selection team announced that the Lockheed Martin/BAE System/Northrop Grumman team had been selected to design and build the operational Joint Strike Fighter as the F-35. The committee stated that the selection was based on best value, a clear indication that they felt that either an F-32 or an F-35 could have been a revolutionary step in military aircraft.”
The 2021 Roll of Honor
In the historical tradition of the Gathering of Eagles, professionals are selected annually to be honored for their significant accomplishments in service to aerospace advancement, national defense, community support, and education
021 Gathering of Eagles, Eagle Honorees:
Fred D. Knox Jr., X-32 Chief Test Pilot
Joseph Sweeney, X-35C Project Pilot
Dennis P. O’Donoghue — X-32B Project Pilot
Simon Hargreaves, X-35B Project Pilot
Addison Thompson, X-32 Test Director
Dick Burton, X-35 Director of Flight Test
Joint Test Force
- Phillip “Rowdy” Yates, USN (Ret.) X-32
- Paul “TP” Smith, USAF (Ret.) X-35
- Art “Turbo” Tomassetti, USMC (Ret.) X-35
- Col. Jeff “Pigpen” Karnes, USMC (Ret.) X-32
- Paul “Stoney” Stone, RN (Ret.) X-32
- Ldr. Justin “Jif” Paines, RAF (Ret.) X35
- Edward “Fast Eddie” Cabrera, USAF (Ret.) X-32
- Brian “Goz” Goszkowicz, USN (Ret.) X-35
- Rear Adm. Greg “Fence” Fenton, USN (Ret.) X-35
The Boeing / P&W X-32 Flight Test and Engineering Team
Dr. Kathleen “Katy” Fleming Accepting
Lockheed Martin/BAE Systems/Northrop Grumman X-35 Flight Test and Engineering Team
Rick Rezabek Accepting
PBS The Battle of the X-Planes
Michael Jorgenson, Producer Accepting