419 defects: If the F-35 were a car, which model would it be?

I’m not asking one of those inane questions like those so loved by tech companies.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has been compared to, drum roll, the Edsel many times. Hundreds of stories and images have conflated the two.  While you can make some comparisons, the F-35-as-Edsel is an imperfect analogy. And not a particularly useful one.

Here’s why. The Edsel as a concept was largely hype. Except for the radical front end appearance — which Ford Motor Company erased...

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I’m not asking one of those inane questions like those so loved by tech companies.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has been compared to, drum roll, the Edsel many times. Hundreds of stories and images have conflated the two.  While you can make some comparisons, the F-35-as-Edsel is an imperfect analogy. And not a particularly useful one.

Here’s why. The Edsel as a concept was largely hype. Except for the radical front end appearance — which Ford Motor Company erased in the two years of the car’s existence before killing it off —the Edsel was conventional, mostly assembled from existing parts. Also, a Ford group vice president ordered changes after the introductory year that, in retrospect, were designed to ensure the brand failed. That saboteur was named Robert S. McNamara.

The F-35, on the other hand, breaks engineering ground, or tries to, with a combination of super-stealth materials and advanced electronics.

What the two do share is imperfect execution. Edsels became famous for doors that would stick shut, silent horns, even failing brakes. More often than not, they arrived at dealers with missing parts, often with a list taped to the steering wheel. Edsels tended to rust quickly because of poor drainage,  and the paint would peel. The joke ran, Edsel stood for every-day-something-else-leaks.

The F-35 program has experienced well-documented development problems, defects, delays and missed cost targets. For example, critics say it is slower and less maneuverable than a fighter ought to be. Defenders say its mission is not about dogfights. A recently-leaked test pilot report details these performance problems. It’s kicked off a flurry of stories and blogs, like this Tyler Rogoway account at Foxtrot Alpha.

Still, the Pentagon and Congress remain committed to the program, unlike Ford. Although
I think if McNamara were Defense secretary today, he probably would have killed the F-35, much as he would have liked the idea of one plane adapted for many uses.

The latest controversy concerns whether lightweight pilots are in danger of broken necks when ejecting from the F-35. Last week, the DoD posted its own account of a media briefing given by Air Force Lt. Gen. Chris Bodgan, the F-35 program executive officer. He gave a mixed picture of the program.

Having interviewed Bogdan and seen a couple of his presentations, I have the impression Bogdan works hard to stay even-handed in dealing with both Lockheed Martin and the F-35’s boosters on one side and the legions of critics on the other. The former he must keep lashed to the yoke and on task. From the latter, he must deflect a constant stream of rocks and brickbats.

The scale of issues can cause one’s eyebrows to rise up to the top of one’s head. Bogdan reports that some 800 deficiencies in the hardware and software have been corrected. But another 419 deficiencies remain. Geez.

Two big issues concern the neck up. It turns out, pilots under 136 pounds aren’t allowed to fly the F-35 for now because of the risk of neck injury during ejection. The fix will be a circuit that delays parachute deployment by a few milliseconds for the lightweight people, providing they flip a light/heavy toggle switch to the correct position. Sounds kludgy.

Also, Bogdan says he thinks the F-35 helmet — also the topic of much debate — is too heavy at 5.1 pounds. He wants a least a few ounces shaved off. It’ll take up to 9 months to get done, and Bogdan is quoted as saying, “I don’t like that.”

Cancellation is unlikely, and anyhow it’s above Bogdan’s pay grade. He says the Pentagon is buying most of the planes it planned to in fiscal 2017, with the development program concluding by fall of that year.

My sense is, given the recent swing to “modernization” for the F-35, that this plane will be under development to some degree forever. It will never become a fixed, done thing Lockheed will be able to crank out on demand. Just as for Ford, neither was the Edsel.

More commentary from Tom Temin