Aviation History

Here’s why even though the Boeing F-32 may have had some advantages over the F-35, it would have had the same issues of the Lightning II

The Boeing X-32

In 1996, the US Department of Defense awarded Boeing a four-year contract for the concept demonstration phase of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program competition. The goal was to develop a low-cost, multirole tactical aircraft for the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps and the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.

Boeing assembled two concept demonstration aircraft, X-32A and X-32B, at its plant in Palmdale, Calif.

On Sep. 18, 2000, the X-32A made its first flight from Palmdale to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The X-32A demonstrated conventional takeoff and landing characteristics for the Air Force as well as carrier approach flying qualities for the Navy. The aircraft made 66 flights during four months of testing. The flights validated the aircraft’s handling qualities for inflight refueling, weapons bay operations and supersonic flight.

The X-32B aircraft made its first flight on Mar. 29, 2001. It made 78 test flights in four months, including a transcontinental ferry flight from Edwards Air Force Base to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. The aircraft successfully transitioned to and from STOVL flight mode by using its direct-lift system to redirect thrust from the aircraft’s cruise nozzle to the lift nozzles. The X-32B also demonstrated its ability to hover and make vertical landings.

The flight tests ended in July 2001 and on Oct. 26 of the same year the Department of Defense announced that the Lockheed Martin X-35 had been chosen over the X-32. The X-35 was further developed into the F-35 Lightning II.

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The Boeing F-32 may have had some advantages over the F-35

Were there any areas where the Boeing X-32 was better than the Lockheed Martin X-35?

‘Of note was that the X-32 arrived at the competition nearly a month before the X-35. It was ready to go, and clearly had the early lead,’ says David Tussey, former US Navy A-7 pilot, on Quora.

– Probably cheaper. The X-32 took a less complex design, more manufacturable approach. And the proposed final design, which was different from the prototype, was much more conventional (dropped that one-piece delta wing).

– More survivable in combat. Probably, again owing to the less complex design.

-Probably more expandable, over time. I think the Lockheed design is somewhat more rigid, but that’s mostly speculation.

Tussey concludes;

‘One can only imagine what the designs would have looked like had the STOVL requirement been dropped. Once the Lockheed thrust-fan was proven to work, the competition was all over.’

This is the X-32 as flown and tested. Note the large delta wing.

The F-32 would have had the same issues of the F-35

However as the mockup of the final F-32 shows, the aircraft would have had a totally revised wing (in place of the large delta wing of the X-32) and taileron concept. ‘When the competition winner was announced this F-32 only existed on paper and in fiberglass models. It would have required years of further development to come to fruition,’ says David Rendall, an aviation expert, on Quora.

F-32 final mockup

‘Boeing hadn’t fully appreciated the naval aspects of control in carrier landings and so had to start afresh after they finalised the X-32. It was a huge error on their behalf and was one of the reasons they lost the deal, X-35 was much closer to the final product.’

Rendall concludes;

‘Most of the problems with F-35 have come from new avionics and coding issues and maintenance of the stealth outer coating. These would have been the same systems and materials used on F-32 so it would have had many of the same delays and problems on top of it needing a couple more years in the wind tunnel.’

Photo credit: Boeing and U.S. Air Force

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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