Some Aircraft Get All the Luck (and Money)

And some run out of both.

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A few months ago, I was in Fort Worth, Texas, reporting on BAE Systems’ project to modernize South Korea’s F-16s. I’d known the project’s leader, John Bean, in an earlier job, and on one of his shelves was a memento of that era—a model of a desert-camouflaged airplane that was clearly an F-16 but with a longer body, no horizontal stabilizer, and big delta wings.

I first met Bean in 1994, when Lockheed had just bought General Dynamics’ Fort Worth unit (which made the F-16) and was in the process of merging with Martin. His team was working hard to land a big fighter order from the United Arab Emirates, which wanted more range and weapons load than the standard F-16 could offer.

A dozen years before that, GD had tested the F-16XL, with an arrowhead wing shape that NASA had designed for a supersonic airliner. The longer body and thick wings boosted internal fuel capacity by 80 percent. The new F-16U proposed to the UAE was similar in concept, but used a different wing, designed by GD during the competition that led to the F-22 Raptor.

The UAE was ready to pay the development bill—the F-16U promised range that would get the aircraft well into Iran—but imposed one condition. The U.S. Air Force would have to buy one combat wing’s worth of F-16Us.

It was a show-stopper. The Air Force had decided that all its future fighters would be stealthy, and the project to replace the F-16 was folded into the Joint Strike Fighter program. The F-16U would be a distraction at best and a competitor at worst. Eventually, the UAE bought a simpler adaptation of the F-16.

Some years later, I was talking with some people on the Eurofighter Typhoon program and mentioned the UAE’s delta F-16. “It would have killed us,” one said.

Aviation history is full of “might have beens”: aircraft that might have been contenders but ran out of money, luck, or both. The delta F-16 is at the top of my list, but as an aerospace writer, I covered a couple of other memorable near-misses.

Before the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor, there was a Marine Corps requirement called HXM that asked for a new helicopter. To meet it, Boeing designed the Model 360—and after HXM was rolled into the Osprey program, Boeing carried on with it, on company funds, flying it in 1987.

Although the Model 360 looked like an aerodynamically clean but conventional tandem-rotor helicopter, it was made almost entirely of composites—many of them blends of glass, Kevlar, and carbon fiber. Even the main driveshafts and landing gear units were composite. It was designed with low drag and a new rotor blade to cruise smoothly at well over 195 mph. And it was stealthy: The engine inlets were hidden in the top of the aft rotor pylon, and the rotors could be slowed so that the helicopter could fly quietly at 104 mph.

But the only likely customer, the Pentagon, was fixated on the even faster Osprey, which at the time was expected to cost little more to buy or operate than a conventional helicopter. By the time such promises had evaporated, it was too late for the Model 360, and today it rests rotorless and forlorn in a Pennsylvania museum.

Another notable might-have-been, from the early 1980s, was an elegant victim of ambition: The twin-engine, eight-passenger LearFan 2100, Bill Lear’s last design. The whole airframe was carbon fiber, which in turn permitted a slick compound-curved fuselage and sailplane-like, efficient wing. The engines were standard Pratt & Whitney PT6s, but they were buried in the rear fuselage and geared to a single propeller. The result was near-jet speed and altitude with propeller-like fuel burn.

Starting up an airplane company is a huge challenge in itself. Carbon fiber problems such as delamination (the splitting apart of the material’s plies) were barely understood, and federal airworthiness authorities were reluctant to sign off on the coupled engine.

The LearFan ran out of cash before the problems were solved, but it left a historic echo. With its slender wings, pusher propeller, and Y-tail, the LearFan resembles today’s Reaper drone—and Linden Blue, co-owner of the Reaper’s maker, General Atomics, was the last CEO of LearFan. I’m not sure it’s a coincidence.

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