Lockheed unveiled its secret prototype of the advanced tactical fighter Wednesday at Palmdale, disclosing significant design differences from a competing Northrop version of the future Air Force warplane.
The two Southern California military aircraft producers are battling for Air Force contracts potentially worth $80 billion for 750 aircraft over decades and Navy contracts worth $40 billion for 450 aircraft.
The massive aircraft program, however, faces long delays as Congress attempts to cut defense spending.
Lockheed and its team, consisting of Boeing, General Dynamics and dozens of subcontractors, have spent an estimated $1.1 billion to design and produce two aircraft in the competition. The Air Force has funded $818 million of that amount, and the balance was invested by the companies.
Inside Lockheed’s massive Palmdale hangar Wednesday, a tall blue curtain was pulled back to reveal the aircraft that until now has been classified. It is expected to make its maiden flight within the next several weeks.
The Lockheed aircraft, designated the YF-22, features a somewhat shorter fuselage than Northrop’s, a slightly smaller wing, twice the number of horizontal and vertical stabilizers and very large conventional jet engine inlets.
The combination suggests that Lockheed has adopted a competition philosophy that emphasizes maneuvering and dogfighting capability whereas Northrop has put greater emphasis on sheer speed and stealth, in some respects resembling an interceptor aircraft more than a fighter.
“We have stressed a balance between stealth and high agility,” Lockheed Chairman Daniel Tellep said in an interview after the roll out ceremony.
Tellep said the Lockheed plane will fly without limitation in its so-called angle of attack, the angle at which the aircraft can move through the air flow and a significant indication of its maneuvering capability.
“It is a very significant breakthrough, because you need agility even with all the modern weapons systems,” he added.
The ATF will replace the Air Force’s existing F-15 fighter, which began flying in 1972 and will be nearly 30 years old before the ATF enters the operational inventory.
Tellep said it was “imperative” to advance the ATF program to its full-scale development stage next year, but key congressional panels have recently cut all funding for full-scale work.
Tellep invoked an emotional appeal for the weapon, saying: “Youngsters entering their teens today will be the pilots protecting U.S. interests . . . a decade from now. Their skill and valor must be supported with . . . the advanced tactical fighter.”
Upbeat Lockheed executives said Wednesday that they believed that they have some advantages over Northrop, even before the competitive flight testing of the two aircraft begins. Northrop’s YF-23 prototype flew for the first time Monday. An informal motto of Northrop engineers in recent years had become, “Fly first and win.”
Tellep, while congratulating Northrop for its flight, added that “it is not he who flies first, it is he who flies best.”
The Lockheed YF-22 fuselage measures 64 feet 2 inches, versus 67.4 feet for the Northrop plane.
Aside from looks, the additional three feet could indicate that the Northrop aircraft is heavier than the Lockheed aircraft. The actual weights of the two aircraft have not been released.
The Lockheed wing spans 43 feet, virtually identical to the Northrop wing. The wing span was dictated largely by the Air Force’s desire to utilize existing aircraft parking shelters in Europe, according to Lockheed Vice President Sherman N. Mullin.
The Northrop aircraft has two aft stabilizers, while the Lockheed aircraft has twin vertical and twin horizontal stabilizers. One observer at the event Wednesday said that the greater number of control surfaces on the Lockheed aircraft would indicate a greater emphasis on maneuverability.
Another significant difference between the two aircraft is that Lockheed YF-22 aircraft will have thrust vectoring of its two jet engines, which further enhances maneuverability. Lockheed elected to position its engines close to the fuselage, while the Northrop engines are molded into the wing.