The engine that could
How one man's dream of a new propulsion system won a huge contract for Lockheed Martin.
You've probably never heard of Paul Bevilaqua, but he had an idea that really took off. And then the idea brought home the bacon--$200 billion worth--to Lockheed Martin Corp. and its partners who together recently won the Pentagon's giant contract for the Joint Strike Fighter. Beyond that, Bevilaqua's invention may revolutionize future aircraft designs. More than a decade ago, Bevilaqua envisioned a propulsion system that would permit big and fast aircraft, as opposed to small planes or slow helicopters, to take off and land vertically. No long runway needed. This had been a dream of the aviation world for most of the 20th century. Bevilaqua based the propulsion system's design on his idea that the power from an airplane's jet engine could be harnessed at both ends, not just the back, to provide extra lift. He sketched out his idea and applied for a patent in 1990. The sketch showed a naked drive shaft sticking out the front of a jet engine. Traditionally, no such shaft is there. A jet engine's drive shaft is normally encased. Bevilaqua's unusual shaft at the front of the engine joined a second one at a 90-degree angle. They meshed together in a gearbox near the cockpit. The second shaft went straight up out of the gearbox to an opening in the roof of the plane. There, the shaft turned a big fan exposed to the outside air. This aeronautical version of an attic fan drew outside air down into a tunnel and pushed it out the bottom of the plane. Air pushed out of the tunnel would act like air shooting out of a balloon, which creates an opposite force that makes the balloon fly across the room. This opposite force would push against the belly of the plane, helping to lift it vertically off the ground or to cushion a vertical landing. The aeronautical engineer told National Journal in an interview that just as an attic fan drives large amounts of air without burning a lot of electricity, so too would the rooftop fan spin without taking away much thrust from the jet engine. Most of the engine's thrusting gases would still go out the tailpipe. He saw the fan as providing extra lift, a bonus. Because the plane would need to create a strong fountain of air to ride up or down on, Bevilaqua also decided to make the tailpipe bend down to spray hot gases toward the ground. The downward force would generate an opposite upward one, helping to lift up the back of plane while the roof fan did the same thing to the front. Tucked away in Lockheed's fabled secretive Skunk Works in California, Bevilaqua and his buddies there brainstormed on the "shaft-driven lift-fan" concept with the steadfastness and enthusiasm of San Francisco 49er fans brainstorming football plays. All this sketching and thinking with colleagues at the Skunk Works had initially been inspired by a 1987 visit of Pentagon visionaries who are supposed to look beyond today and anticipate what the armed services will need in the future. These military futurists are concentrated in the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency. Officials there told Bevilaqua that they needed a successor to the Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier jet, a fighter-bomber that can take off and land like a helicopter but fly forward like a regular fixed-wing aircraft. The Harrier had served for many years as the Marines' short take off and vertical landing-STOVL-attack aircraft, thanks to the lift provided by a series of moveable nozzles shooting out engine gas. But the Harrier was small, could not carry a big load of bombs, nor fly faster than the speed of sound in level flight or have the stealth characteristics needed to foil enemy gunners. "Where's the beef?" was one critical question pilots often asked about the Harrier. DARPA and the Marine Corps liked the new fighter-bomber and propulsion system that the Bevilaqua team outlined for them. So, they financed the team's development efforts at the rate of $8 million to $10 million a year from 1988-91. Then, the money ran out. For a while, it looked as if the Bevilaqua team's blueprints would end up in a bottom drawer at the Skunk Works rather than be transformed into flying metal. But in 1992, Bevilaqua persuaded the Air Force that his team's plane would make a great and affordable fighter-bomber to complement the service's F-22 air superiority fighter in the 21st century. The Marines' STOVL devices could be stripped out of the Skunk Works plane, he said, and made into a very serviceable plane for the Air Force. The Air Force and later the Navy agreed such an airplane was worth pursuing, and their support prompted the Pentagon to launch the JSF program. The idea was to build one basic, inexpensive, high-tech, and lethal fighter-bomber for all three services-Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps-an idea that had been tried unsuccessfully before in the 1960s by Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara with the TFX. The three original contractors in the JSF competition were Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin, and a team composed of McDonnell Douglas Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp., and British Aerospace. After the early phases of the competition from 1993-95, the Pentagon in 1996 chose Boeing and Lockheed Martin to compete in the next phase of the JSF sweepstakes. The passed-over contractors then signed up with the two finalists: McDonnell Douglas joined Boeing; Northrop Grumman and British Aerospace went with Lockheed Martin. (British Aerospace is now called BAE Systems.) Lockheed executives said their biggest technical challenge was to find a way to lift and land the relatively heavy-30,000 pounds-Marine Corps STOVL version of the JSF with the Pratt and Whitney F-119 engine. That engine generated a little more than 25,000 pounds of thrust. Boeing, in this new stage of the competition, had the advantage of the expertise McDonnell Douglas had gained in developing its direct-lift Harrier jump-jet. Lockheed Martin had Bevilaqua's promising but still untested shaft-driven lift-fan propulsion system. "All of us felt that you couldn't take an airplane in the weight class of a JSF and successfully fly it with the direct-lift concept" employed by the Harrier, said Tom Burbage, the former naval aviator who ran Lockheed Martin's JSF program, in a National Journal interview. Not having enough lift during a vertical takeoff or landing would be like not having enough power to get your car off the railroad track when a train is coming. "You couldn't get the margins" of lift to assure safe hovering of the JSF, which had to be heavier than the old Harrier. So, Burbage said, Lockheed Martin decided to put its chips on the invention patented by their Skunk Works engineer, Paul Bevilaqua. "It was a classic risk and reward payoff," Burbage said. "I think we took more risk in the propulsion concept" than Boeing did, "but the payoff was much higher" in the versatility of performance the extra lift promised. "It didn't work at first," he said of the Bevilaqua design, "so we were scrambling to make sure we could get it to work." Bevilaqua said that the basic concept proved to be sound when his idea finally was turned into working metal. "The devil was in the details, like finding tough-enough material for the gears, making sure there were no oil leaks, and that the cooling system was the right size and that the clutch worked smoothly," he said. A lot was riding on Bevilaqua's idea, Burbage recalled: "Everybody said if we couldn't fly STOVL, we were going to lose. Then Boeing would win." So it was high-stakes drama indeed when Burbage, other top Lockheed Martin executives, and Bevilaqua journeyed to the desert outside of Palmdale, Calif., on the weekend of June 23-24, 2001, to subject the patented propulsion system to its most crucial STOVL hover test. The guinea pig was the company's X-35B test plane, a prototype of the Marine Corps version of the JSF. "Everybody was standing there going, `God, I hope it works this time,' " said Burbage. In an earlier test, Bevilaqua's propulsion system had to be shut down early because it overheated. At 9:06:16 a.m. PST on Sunday, June 24, a test pilot tried to get the X-35B off the desert floor. The plane went straight up with no apparent difficulty and hovered higher than expected on its fountain of air until 9:07:16 a.m., according to Lockheed. This was a full and joyous minute. The plane had also generated plenty of thrust-40,000 pounds, the company said. Four months later, on Oct. 26, 2001, Lockheed won the JSF contract, which will be the richest aircraft contract in history-if it is carried out as now planned. The Pentagon plans to buy 1,763 JSFs for the Air Force, 480 for the Navy, and 609 for the Marine Corps. On top of this total of 2,852 for the U.S. armed forces, Britain will buy 150 JSFs, making a total buy in the near term of about 3,000 copies of the 21st-century fighter-bomber. Several other friendly countries also plan to buy the JSF, leading Pentagon officials to predict that overseas' sales will total another 3,000. If, indeed, 6,000 JSFs end up being built and sold, this airplane would bring a half-trillion dollars in revenue to airplane companies and their suppliers. It will be a decade or more, however, before Lockheed Martin starts seeing anything like that kind of money. The October contract was for $18.9 billion to finance just the current development and demonstration phase of the JSF program, not mass production of the aircraft. Moreover, the Joint Strike Fighter faces financial and political headwinds for years to come. Critics contend that there are not enough defense dollars in sight to finance the ambitious JSF program, especially considering the diversion of Pentagon money for the war on terrorism and homeland security. They also contend that the absence of any competitive enemy threat to U.S. fighter-bombers already flying-the Lockheed Martin F-16 and the Boeing McDonnell Douglas F-15 and F/A-18 E and F-argues for keeping those less sophisticated aircraft in production longer. The Air Force F-22 air superiority fighter also looms as a competitor for aircraft dollars. Someone could also challenge the Pentagon's decision to award the aircraft contract to one winner-take-all manufacturer. Just before Congress adjourned last year, Republican Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, home state of McDonnell Douglas, where Boeing had planned to build a new plant for manufacturing the JSF, added language to the fiscal 2002 defense appropriations bill requiring the Pentagon to assess the dangers of allowing only one company to design and build the nation's fighter-bombers for the next half century. "We must avoid a de facto monopoly because it will lead to excessive cost growth and complacency," Bond said. Lockheed Martin executives say the JSF is gaining acceptance as flight tests demonstrate its potential and as costs skyrocket for repairing the old aircraft being flown by the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. They say maintaining the new JSFs will cost the services half as much over the life of the new plane as upkeep on any existing aircraft. In fiscal 2001 dollars, the Pentagon puts the price of one JSF at between $40 million and $50 million, not counting sunken research costs. But, when all is said and done, why did Lockheed Martin win this juiciest of airplane contracts? "I really think it came down to the airplane, the design," Burbage said. He and other company leaders gave Bevilaqua the equivalent of the game ball when the Pentagon announced last October that Lockheed Martin had won. Now Bevilaqua, a graduate of Notre Dame and Purdue, is working with his buddies in the Skunk Works on ways to use the propulsion system in civilian planes to revolutionize air travel in the 21st century.