For now and for the next few years, the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is the proverbial baby of the aerospace industry family.
Every ‘first’ this infant aircraft design makes will be ooh’d and ahh’d over, simply by virtue of it being the baby. Even the cranky uncles (like me) will crack a smile.
And so it goes with the first lighting of the F-35’s afterburner during a takeoff.
This great piece – written by my old colleague (okay, ex-boss) Graham Warwick – describes the moment earlier this week that the F-35’s 40,000lb-thrust monster of an engine went thermonuclear.
That being said, lighting an afterburner is one of the simplest tricks of the aerospace engineering profession, dating back to the dawn of the jet age in the 1950s. With the right tools, you can even try it at home. Just spray kerosene into a blast of super-heated air and watch what happens. (Okay, maybe don’t.)
This whole show over the JSF is cute for now. But, just like a baby who grows into a toddler and eventually an adolescent, the enthusiasm for some of its personality quirks will fade. Some features may become downright annoying.
How will that afterburning engine of the JSF be appreciated in 15 or 20 years, I wonder?
It is sometimes said that the JSF is the last manned fighter to be built, and that may yet prove true although the jury is still out.
But it’s arguably a lock that the F-35 will be the last fighter designed without regard to the rate of specific fuel consumption.
Two trends in aerial warfare are clear: gas-guzzlers are ‘out’ and engine efficiency is ‘in’. Long-range strike, the object of the air force’s current high-tech fixation, demands an aircraft that hoards gas like it was liquid gold. Super-speed will still be desirable, but for the first time speed will not be the over-riding criteria if it means damaging engine efficiency.