The US Air Force recently launched an ambitious project to put two damaged F-35s back together by strategically combining them into a single fully operating stealth fighter. How’d you like to be chosen to be the pilot of that monster?
This unique effort, aptly dubbed the “Franken-bird,” represents an unmatched achievement in the history of aviation maintenance and restoration.
Let’s take a closer look at the initiative’s progress thus far.
The F-35′ Franken-Bird’ Project
This incredible endeavor began in Utah, where Air Force engineers are meticulously building a new chapter in aviation history.
The operation at hand integrates components from two different F-35s, one damaged by a landing gear fall in June 2020 and the other by an engine fire in 2014.
This attempt, in collaboration with a handpicked team of experts from Lockheed Martin, the F-35 Joint Program Office, the 388th Fighter Wing, and the Ogden Air Logistics Complex, shows a convergence of specialized skill sets targeted at attaining the remarkable.
Scott Taylor, the lead mechanical engineer at Lockheed Martin, expressed in a statement the groundbreaking nature of the project, highlighting, “This is the first F-35 ‘Franken-bird’ to date. This is history.”
“All of the aircraft sections can be de-mated and re-mated theoretically, but it’s just never been done before,” said Taylor.
Why does the story of Icarus come immediately to mind when I read Mr. Taylor’s statements? Let’s just be sure this rare bird doesn’t get too close to the sun.
To be fair, you don’t just want to toss a couple of potentially useful $80-$100 million dollar aircraft on the junk heap. Why not try to weld ’em back together?
This writer is forced to wonder (tongue in cheek) if this voids their warranty in any way.
Meticulous Reconstruction Process
The team’s meticulous documentation of the restoration process aims to establish standardized repair procedures, potentially revolutionizing future maintenance practices for the F-35 fleet.
Located at Hill Air Force Base near Salt Lake City, Utah, the restoration project necessitated designing and constructing specialized equipment, tools, and fixtures.
A F-35 Being Made From Two other badly Damaged F-35 Jets.
Large sections of 2 US Airforce F35A that were seriously damaged in two accidents year ago being grafted together into a single Operational Jet & will be named as Franken Bird. pic.twitter.com/BF9j5yLcRz
— Vivek Singh (@VivekSi85847001) December 2, 2023
These innovations facilitate the intricate repairs away from the F-35 manufacturing plant in Texas, showcasing the ingenuity and adaptability of the project team.
A distinctive feature of this initiative is its potential for portability and adaptability.
The specially designed equipment and tools fit within a Conex cargo container, enabling their transportation for future uses underscoring the project’s versatility and forward-thinking approach.
Cost-Effectiveness and Timeline
Projected to culminate in March 2025, this endeavor commenced its conceptualization in January 2020.
Despite the initial estimated timeline, the project is reportedly months ahead of schedule, demonstrating the proficiency and dedication of the engineering team involved.
The cost implications of this unique restoration effort are substantial.
While a single F-35A typically costs around $70 million to manufacture, this project’s endeavor to salvage and refurbish damaged aircraft could potentially save significant resources.
Notably, the burned F-35, estimated at $50 million worth of damage due to an engine fire, is being paired with the other jet to form a functional aircraft, emphasizing cost-effectiveness in restoring these valuable assets.
Restoring damaged aircraft to operational status is not entirely novel within military aviation.
The “Franken-tiger” fighters, for example, created by Northrop Grumman for the US Navy in the late 2000s, and the USS San Francisco (SSN-711) submarine’s restoration after a collision in 2005 using components from another decommissioned vessel, serve as precursors to this groundbreaking F-35 restoration project.
Broader Implications and Challenges
Beyond the immediate scope of restoring damaged aircraft, this initiative holds broader implications.
The endeavor to refine repair procedures for damaged F-35s could address critical challenges faced by the Joint Strike Fighter fleets.
“The F-35 program is still young compared to all legacy airframes,” stated Dave Myers, F-35 JPO Lightning Support Team lead engineer. “We are doing this for the first time, and organizationally for the future, we are creating a process we can move forward with.”
The current shortages of spare parts and related factors pose significant hurdles to sustained combat operations involving these cutting-edge aircraft.
The broader context of this initiative is crucial, particularly in the context of evolving military strategies.
The US Air Force’s interest in bolstering its capacity for distributed and expeditionary operations, especially in remote or austere locations, resonates with this endeavor.
The growing emphasis on Agile Combat Employment underscores the significance of initiatives like the “Franken-bird” project in fortifying national defense capabilities.
Ensuring Sustained Readiness and National Defense
Amidst its promising prospects, however, certain challenges persist.
Logistical considerations for executing such intricate repairs in field locations remain a concern.
Historically, stealth aircraft necessitate substantial logistical footprints due to their intricate construction, raising questions about the feasibility of such endeavors in remote settings.
The project also sheds emphasis on the critical need to assure friendly force survivability while complicating adversary targeting cycles in prospective high-end battles, particularly against near-peer rivals.
In conclusion, the US Air Force’s endeavor to restore damaged F-35s into a functional “Franken-bird” represents an unparalleled chapter in aviation history.
This unique effort not only exemplifies military engineering’s resourcefulness and adaptability, but it also holds the possibility of refining maintenance techniques for cutting-edge aircraft, ensuring the continued readiness of critical defense assets for years to come.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope it works.