Two former Skunk Works members seem to know why the F-35 program is a mess

Among the contents of the November 2012 issue of Classic Aircraft (a magazine that since Jan. 2013 has been incorporated into its sister magazine Aviation News), an interesting article written by Angus Batey gives an exclusive overview about the birth of the legendary Lockheed’s Skunk Works division.

The father of this facility was Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, one of the best aircraft designer in the aviation history.

He created the Skunk Works with the aim to develop some of the most revolutionary military aircraft following a concept: a project would have turned into a great aircraft if only few qualified people had worked on it.

Thanks to this rule the Skunk Works division designed airplanes which represented a giant leap for their times such as the F-104, the U-2, the Blackbird family or the F-117A stealth fighter jet.

In Batey’s article some of the people who contributed to create these classified concepts and former Skunk Works members also explain which are the main differences between the rules followed by Lockheed during the development of the above mentioned aircraft and the rules followed by Lockheed during F-22 and F-35 development: these differences may be among the reasons which led to the problems of the last two US (multirole) fighter jets.


According to Batey, Alan Brown, a British guy who joined Lockheed in 1960 before joining the Skunk Works in 1975 and being involved in the Have Blue and F-117 programs, had “a simple algebraic formula”:

[…] “the time it takes to go from initial design to operational use by the Air Force is directly proportional to the size of the Air Force oversight committee that’s guiding the airplane design. For the F-117, the Air Force team was a colonel and six other experts-the corresponding team on the F-22 was 130. And if you ratio 130 over seven, you’ll get just about the ratio of the time it took from starting the airframes to getting them in service,” Brown explained.

Bob Murphy, who joined the Skunk Works in 1954, managed flight-test on the U-2 and became deputy director of operations, illustrated the troubles faced by the Joint Strike Fighter to Batey.

“Because of bureaucracy”, […] “once you get all these organizations involved-all the different Air Force bases across the country, and every contractor that makes a screw for the airplane-when they have meetings, everybody comes to every meeting, and nothing ever gets settled. It’s crazy! If you’ve got 300 people in a meeting, what the hell do you solve? Nothing,” Murphy stated.

But F-35’s cost overruns and slippage were are also due to the philosophy which brought to the three different F-35 versions, as explained again by Brown:

“In the mid-1960s, there was a proposal by the Secretary of Defense to combine the F-14 and F-15 programs, so we did some analysis”, […] “the Air Force wanted 200 F-15s and the Navy wanted 200 F-14s.

If you designed an airplane for each individual service to do what they wanted, each airplane would weight about 40,000lb, but if you combined them so one airplane could do the job that was needed for each service, the weight suddenly went up to about 70,000lb-and back then it was generally accepted that airplanes cost about a thousand dollars per pound of weight.

The cost savings on producing 400 of one airplane rather than 200 of two was about 10 percent, so it was clearly much more cost-effective to have two separate airplanes doing their own job best.

So how we manage, on the F-35, to suddenly reverse that idea is not clear to me.”

It’s a shame that the experience made on some of the most advanced and adveniristic projects ever made in aviation history did not guide LM and the U.S. Air Force and Navy through the development of the Lightning II.

David Cenciotti has contributed to this article.


Image credit: Lockheed Martin

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  1. This exactly what I thought the problem to be: trying to make 1 airframe do 3 jobs. I’d be willing to bet most of the other problems in the F-35’s development can be traced back to the decision to have a common aircraft for all 3 services. Overweight for VTOL? No problem, emergency weight loss program. Later, the aircraft designed for carrier landings has structural issues. How could that have happened?

    “Joint” is the dirty word in the military these days – if you don’t have a “J” in your acronym then forget it. I have to admit, the idea looks great on paper; it’s when you put it into practice that it fails.

    It’s ironic that this comes from the company that was led by the man who brought us the 14 Rules of Management.

    Rule 3, “The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use a small number of good people (10% to 25% compared to the so-called normal systems).” See the above article.

    Rule 6: “There must be a monthly cost review covering not only what has been spent and committed but also projected costs to the conclusion of the program. Don’t have the books 90 days late, and don’t surprise the customer with sudden overruns.” How many time has the cost of the JSF gone up?

    Rule 10: “The specifications applying to the hardware must be agreed to well in advance of contracting.” Remember when the JSF was a “lightweight” fighter?

    Rule 13: “Access by outsiders to the project and its personnel must be strictly controlled by appropriate security measures.” China. Need I say more?

    • Interesting. I went to Russia about 6 years ago. Held up at the Airport for 24 hours. Talked to a Russian Physicist/Engineer in the same position who had been working in the US for 5 years.
      I asked him how he liked working in the US. He said something like this. “I like the money but I am coming home in 6 months, Rosatrom has offered me a job now on there 4th Gen Power Station research. That’s what I was supposed to be working on in the US but I find it hopeless and I get no work satisfaction there. There are so may Bureacrats and idiots in the US with power and egos to contend with. They have many good people but the Clerks at the top have too much power. I was on one of the main Coordinating Panels along with too many Accountants and Clerks and on two problems I told them we had a solution in Russia that had proved cheap and reliable. We got a price from the Russian firm and it was only about $30,000 each. They also at the time were struggling and would sell the License. About $500,000. Cheap and proven reliable over about 35 years. The problem is you need to be not only a Scientist/Engineer but also a Politician in the USA. I was shocked about 6 months later to find the empire building Bureacrats had engaged a Company in the East of the USA for about $10m to design a new improved component [That was there reason – I don’t mind pure research but I though our job was to come up with solutions on this job. Not invent a new wheel]. The bastards did not even consult us Scientists. Last year we got the result. Minimum cost about $150,000 unproven and too complicated. The empire building Bureacrats had outsmarted us Scientists.
      In Russia most of the time we like to keep it simple. We have a head Designer Boss who is good. We never reinvent the wheel if there already is a good wheel.
      I bet Rosatrom in Russia beat the US Company to completion even though we are starting behind with about 20% of the money if they don’t get Management and the Accountants and Clerks out of the way. They need to hand the project over to there Engineers and Scientists and learn just to keep the books. Keeping with Russian tradition we are using as a starting point the Reactors we had on one of our Subs. [Lead Cooled]. A good concept but needs more work. I now have a few ideas also based on what I have picked up in the US. Over 1/3 of the team is like me and has worked overseas. Only 12 of us in control. Our head man is very good and a good team leader also. The Russian way. Aircraft designers control Aircraft Companies etc. Not Clerks. The real experts at the top in control. Sure we will have to go to the Accountants and Clerks to get approval for extra money etc. and to out-source certain work but that is where there control finishes.
      I am only getting paid about 40% as much as in the US but it will good to get back to doing the work I love without idiots getting in the way.”

  2. 130 ‘experts’……well good luck to them. Its never going to work properly being dragged in 130 different directions. One head of the project, 5 key contributors, I like that structure.

    Its all about the maths… and it just does not add up!.

    By the way – its an interesting read/insight

    • Yes – when you have that many ‘experts’, you wind up with “design by committee” where the Dunning-Kruger effect comes into play – the least competent think they know more than they do and end up having more influence than you would expect.

  3. Wasn’t it proved back in the ’60s with the F-111 that designing a plane to “do everything” didn’t work? The Navy F-111 was never what the Navy wanted, but McNamara forced it on them, and it was a total failure as a fleet defense fighter. That’s how the Navy finally got the F-14. The Air Force wasn’t really happy with the F-111 either, at first, but after 4-6 years of mods and rebuilds, they were able to turn it into the successful fighter-bomber that it was. No one airplane can serve many masters (C-130, perhaps, excluded from that statement).

    • You simply can’t compare the aviation development process from the 60-ties with today. The cost of technology has gone so far up that there is no way in hell we’ll ever see different planes being developed for every specific role. Age of multirole jets is here to stay, at least till we transfer to fully unmanned. If F-35 was developed specifically for Marines, Navy and AF it would have costed 2 trillion $ and we wouldn’t see IOC till 2030. It’s just the name of the game.Of course beraucracy and capability creep are to blame but making F-35 a joint program was actually a good idea. You have to take into consideration that F-35 has over 8 million lines of code and it will have STOVL capability. Put all that in context and I’m sure it will be a great war bird, once the wrinkles are ironed out . Just as all the other fighter jet programs had birth problems, F-35 has them too, albeit on a larger scale,, but you have to think about the things I’ve just mentioned above.

    • Nobody remembers the TFX (F-111) program, which is why they went right out and did it again. The adage about those who forget history is true.

  4. There is more to the cost than the jet itself though. Procurement costs play a huge role in why the services may want to combine multiple roles into one airframe. Annual procurement costs (maintenance, facilities, parts, logistics) are the long-term cost factor. By simplifying this into one plane/situation, this cost should go way down. Taxpayers will no longer need to foot twice the bill. Of course, I won’t defend the groupthink/design-by-committee/poor political management that this article points out – just know that the idea itself of the F-35 is a good one.

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