The second great engine war, in which we are currently embroiled, offers many components of a fabulous story: national security, jet fighters, three great and combative companies, politicians and congressional experts and lobbyists and lots of cash. (So far we don’t have any sex, but a reporter can only hope.) Into that mix boldly strides a former F-16 pilot who just can’t keep his mouth shut while the second engine for the Joint Strike fighter’s fate is still uncertain. Read Robert Newton’s commentary on why he thinks the F-136 is a must have.
Single engine fighter pilots have a special perspective on their engines. From the life and death nature of their mission to the broader implications on the battle, they count on the engine to get them to the fight and win.
Today there is a dogfight between the Department of Defense (DOD) and Congress over the alternative engine program for the largest defense program ever, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
For those of us who lived the F-16 “Viper” experience with the Pratt & Whitney F100 and the General Electric F110 engines, silence is not an option. Too much is at stake and the relevant real-world lessons learned over decades of hard work, billions invested, and successful worldwide fighter operations are clear and profound.
There are volumes of information, metrics, reports, and books like The Air Force and the Great Engine War that describe the history, detail the lessons and highlight the value of a second jet engine source. As if these sources are not enough, I’ve talked to many others who operated the parent of the F-35, the F-16, for thousands of hours each and we broadly agree the alternative engine program for the JSF is essential.
From our first casual look at the F-16, we saw the blended wing-body that makes the jet look like an engine with wings on it and a prime perch with a bubble canopy for us to ride. Before we ever got into the cockpit though we “got smart” with a Pratt traveling road show called “know your engine.” This forum began as the direct result of the operational challenges that plagued us (and our maintainers) from the beginning of the F100 engine operations.
We were all impressed by the F100’s high thrust; however, in-flight we had performance shortfalls and throttle restriction that to some degree forced us to baby the motor in order to avoid engine problems: stalls and/or afterburner blow-outs. We often felt as if we were flying the engine as opposed to employing the aircraft.
Unfortunately the situation on the ground was even worse. The in-flight problems were difficult to resolve and reliability was a fraction of the requirement. Not to let us or the mission down, our maintainers made herculean efforts to keep our F-16s in the air. They would routinely remove and replace engines and the engine back shop would all too often tear them down completely. In a short time, engine shop operating budgets and manpower to perform all the unplanned maintenance snowballed and drove our maintenance squadrons to the brink of operational bankruptcy.
Then our world changed. The Pentagon saw the wisdom of introducing a second engine in the form of GE’s F-110 and we discovered an engine with unrestricted throttle movements, higher thrust, and the potential to actually meet all the reliability requirements. Yes, an engine could really do what we needed and politics succumbed to true solutions and performance. Of course GE was happy to be on the F-16, but there was also a spark in the eyes of Pratt’s working level engineers, mechanics, and managers who knew they could do better.
That initial spark of competition generated a new energy level that was unmistakable, impossible to quantify, of immeasurable benefit, and enduring. Now, for over 20 years the dull thud of complacency has been replaced with broad excitement and empowered performance. When we had problems or new technical opportunities, the creative minds of each team made it theirs and in turn set new standards of excellence for both engines.
The bottom line results are historic and unmistakable: dramatically improved combat capability and our war fighting advantage. Some say we can’t afford an alternative engine for the F-35. For those of us who flew F-16s, it is crystal clear that we can’t afford to not have a second source!
Robert Newton, CEO of Newton Consulting & Engineering Inc., is a former F-16 pilot and test pilot with over 3,000 hours in over 35 types of aircraft. He spent 26 years as an Air Force officer, fighter pilot, test pilot and acquisition professional. [Eds. note: Newton says he is not doing business with any of the companies involved in the engine wars.]