The Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has proven to be the most advanced and most capable combat aircraft in service in the world today. It was developed to replace the United States Air Force’s A-10 and F-16, the United State Navy’s F/A-18, and the United States Marine Corps F/A-18 and AV-8B Harrier.
The single-engine, single-seat plane is unique in that it can operate as a conventional-takeoff-and-landing (CTOL) variant (F-35A) for the Air Force, while the Navy’s version (F-35C) was designed to operate from an aircraft carrier (CV). The United States Marine Corps, along with the UK’s Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, employ the F-35B, which can operate as a short-takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) fighter. As a fifth-generation multirole combat aircraft, the F-35 Lightning II is equipped with advanced stealth capabilities, along with improved agility and maneuverability, as well as enhanced sensor and information fusion, network-enabled operations, and sustainment.
It Began With the X-35: We Got So Close We Could Nearly Touch It
The experimental program that preceded the Joint Strike Fighter has become “almost legendary in aviation history,” and the evolution of the F-35 can be seen at the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum annex at the Dulles International Airport’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. We were there just this weekend and filmed the video below and captured the photos below to give you a sense of what the X-35 is all ab out.
The X-35 had been declared the winner over the competing Boeing X-32 and a developed, armed version went on to enter production in the early 21st century as the F-35 Lightning II. In September 2003, the Smithsonian Institution “leapt at the chance” to acquire one of the X-planes used during flight testing. Now within the collection of the sprawling facility is the very first X-35B, the short-takeoff and vertical-landing (STOVL) variant that was derived from the X-35A.
The X-35B demonstrator was designed to meet U.S. Marine Corps and British Royal Air Force/Royal Navy requirements and featured a unique shaft-driven lift fan that amplified engine thrust and reduced exhaust temperature and velocity during vertical flight operations. It enabled the aircraft to take off from a short runway or small aircraft carrier and to land vertically. One of those massive lift-fan propulsion systems can also be seen on display next to the X-35B at the Steven F. Udvar Hazy Center.
It was originally built as the X-35A demonstrator and was modified to include the lift-fan engine for testing the STOVL concept. Among its many test records, the particular aircraft was the first in history to achieve a short takeoff, level supersonic dash, and vertical landing in a single flight. In addition, it became the first aircraft to fly using a shaft-driven lift-fan propulsion system.
The X-35B flight test program was one of the shortest, and most effective in history, lasting from June 23, 2001 to August 6, 2001. During its flight-test program, the X-35B successfully completed 27 vertical landings, 14 short takeoffs, and 18 vertical takeoffs, was flown by four pilots from the U.S. and the U.K., broke the sound barrier on five separate occasions, and completed five aerial refuelings.
A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.