Explaining X-Planes

I recently watched (delayed by the magic of TiVo) a two-hour special on NOVA called the Battle of the X-Planes. The show concerned the recent defense industry showdown for who is going to build the next (and probably last) manned jet fighter for the United States, the so-called Joint Strike Fighter. The stakes were extraordinary: a winner-takes-all $200 billion contract. Since there isn’t much money available for new planes these days, the competition boils down to a mountain of cash for the winner and a bullet for the loser.

I used to work in the aerospace business (here’s a picture of the plane I worked on at NASA), and I can tell you that the NOVA cameras really did get behind the scenes of what goes on at an aircraft company. I work in the software business now, and the difference between the two environments is stark. Partially because of security clearances, you see the same kind of person again and again in the airplane business: a white man (U.S. citizen, naturally), enthusiastic, patriotic, and geeky in a clean-cut, midwestern sort of way. Very little irony. The software industry is a kaleidoscopic cross-cultural riot by comparison. NOVA managed to capture the earnestness and the intensity airplane builders pour into their work. If you’ve ever wondered what goes on in top-secret defense industry cabals behind bomb-proof electronically sealed doors, this show is as close as you may get (Note: it’s not actually very interesting). I’ve been there, and now so has public television. I’m impressed with NOVA, but also with the U.S. government and Boeing and Lockheed-Martin. It was a nostalgic treat for me but also a refreshing beam of sunlight deep into normally dark corners of the government.

NOVA has put together a nice website on the the special. For instance, read about Lesson #1 learned by the NOVA film crew at Edwards: Never take snapshots of your C-5 transport plane without official permission, even if your pilot gives the thumbs up.

If you want to learn more about the Joint Strike Fighter, James Fallows has written a good piece about it in the Atlantic: Uncle Sam Buys an Airplane. In it, Fallows describes a conversation with the Boeing team after their loss.

I mentioned a nightmare scenario for Lockheed Martin: that Boeing, while playing the good loser, would get its revenge by successfully promoting unmanned vehicles as the real way to make defense affordable. The Boeing men all laughed when I said this. Of course that is what they have in mind.

That’s why JSF is going to be the last manned jet fighter the U.S. will ever buy. We’d be stupid to by another one now that the robots have finally earned their wings.