Boeing X-32 JSF was an experimental jet fighter designed to replace the US Air Force light aircraft and fighter jet.

In 1993, DARPA (the U.S. Defense Research and Development Agency) launched the CALF (Common Affordable Lightweight Fighter) program in order to find a unique successor to all the U.S. armed forces’ light aircraft, namely the F-16 Fighting Falcon, F/A-18 Hornet and AV-8 Harrier II. At the same time, the U.S. Air Force and Navy were investing in the Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST) program, which was designed to identify technologies to be incorporated into the next generation of aircraft to replace the F-14 and F-111.

Boeing X-32 JSF

In 1994, Congress, in an effort to rationalize spending, decided to combine these two programs into a single one, officially named JSF (Joint Strike Fighter), which was to result in a common fighter (Fighter) bomber (Strike) for the three services: Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, as well as the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. Great Britain, eager to replace its own Harrier GR.7 and 9 since 1996, joined the program in January 2001.

After many companies participated in the first phases of this program, only the projects of Boeing (X-32) and Lockheed Martin (X-35) were selected on November 16, 1996, to develop two examples of a technology demonstrator each, over a period of four years. The McDonnell Douglas project was rejected as too complex.

The companies were forbidden to use their own funds and they each obtained 750 million dollars, including the avionics and the software. The goal was to avoid bankruptcy and to incite them to design an economical aircraft to produce. Three variants were in view: one operating from an airfield, the second from an aircraft carrier, and the last with vertical takeoff and landing.

Boeing followed the same strategy as Lockheed-Martin, studying versions with as much community as possible. The X-32 was designed around a one-piece molded carbon fiber high delta wing. It has a 55° leading edge and is capable of carrying 20,000 pounds of fuel. Such an angle made it possible to limit the effects of transonic flight and to install integrated antennas. Its tricycle gear was retractable, the main gear being housed in the wing-fuselage junction. The pilot was placed in a cockpit very in front.

In order to meet the ADAV requirement, Boeing chose to mount a jet engine (a Pratt & Whittney F119 derivative of 28,000 lbs dry weight and 43,000 lbs with PC) with vectored thrust just behind the cockpit. Not only did this move the center of gravity further forward, but it also required a very large air intake just below the nose, like the F-8 Crusader. This air intake earned it the nickname “Monica” at Boeing itself, in reference to the scandal that was then splashing the White House.

The construction of the prototypes had been underway for 8 months when the Navy issued new requirements concerning the maneuverability and the military load. As a result, the delta wing was no longer sufficient, and it was too late to make major changes to the prototypes. Boeing engineers modified the vertical stabilizer from a Pelikan type (named after its inventor, Ralph Pelikan) to a traditional twin fin. A Pelikan vertical stabilizer is characterized by a horizontal tail extended by outwardly inclined fins. It was to allow the transition from vertical takeoff to horizontal flight. The conventional double vertical stabilizer saved weight and improved maneuverability, but forced Boeing engineers to build two different prototypes.

The maiden flight of the X-32A, designed for both conventional ground and airborne takeoff and landing, took place on September 18, 2000, from Boeing’s Palmdale plant to Edwards Air Force Base. The X-32B, the ADAV variant, flew for the first time on 29 March 2001.

The X-32B was basically the same as the AV-8. Lockheed-Martin’s concept was riskier, but promised a greater offensive load and better range if successful. In addition, the wing itself was quite heavy, forcing Boeing to do separate demonstrations between ADAV and supersonic flight, where the X-35 could make the transition in flight. Indeed, doing a vertical takeoff with the X-32 required removing some parts of the aircraft. Boeing promised that production versions would have a new tailplane that would eliminate the need for different configurations.

Testing continued until July 2001: the X-32A completed 66 flights, including carrier approaches. The X-32B made 78 flights, including a transcontinental flight from Edwards AFB to NAS Patuxent River.

The X-32A reached a speed of Mach 1.6 and a range of 1,574 km. The X-32B had a range of 1112 km. The armament was a 20 mm M61A2 gun, or a 27 mm Mauser BK27 for the international version. Bunkers took place on each side of the fuselage and allowed the carrying of bombs and missiles.

On 26 October 2001, the X-35 was declared the winner of the competition. Although the X-32 was less risky technologically and financially than the X-35, it was also much less efficient and had not convinced the Department of Defense that it could reconcile vertical takeoff and supersonic flight, unlike the X-35.

For Boeing, this was a major shock, because the JSF promised to be the most important market since the F-16, with between 3000 and 5000 examples planned. The idea of using the loser as a subcontractor for this program, put forward before the results were announced, was not retained.

Boeing X-32 JSF

Given the setbacks of the F-35, 15 years after the selection, one can legitimately wonder what would have happened if the X-32 had been selected. There is no reason to believe that the program would have gone better, the wing being difficult to manufacture, the performances insufficient, the vertical/horizontal flight transition not having been made…

Boeing nevertheless considered its work on the X-32 as a strategic investment, some technologies being reused on the F/A-18E Super Hornet and the X-45A.

The two aircraft have survived to the present day. The X-32A was transferred to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in 2005. But due to its outdoor display, it was deteriorated. Since then, it has been put under cover and a restoration seems to be under consideration. The X-32B was transferred to the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum in 2005. It was restored in June 2009 and is now on display.

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