(All images by Urban Ghosts)
To the side of Three Notch Road in Lexington Park, Maryland, is the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum, home of two retired technology demonstrator aircraft that competed in the Joint Strike Fighter competition of the late 1990s/early 2000s. This led to the F-35 Lightning II (currently in development). The Boeing X-32 and Lockheed Martin X-35 each represent one of two proof-of-concept aircraft built by the competing contractors, the latter going on to win the competition in 2001.
Patuxent River Naval Air Museum (PRNAM) is an excellent facility staffed by dedicated volunteers from the U.S. Navy. The hangar features an engaging collection of artifacts and memorabilia (plus an X-47A mock-up and events space). This has unfortunately left a variety of historic aircraft to endure the humidity of the Chesapeake, including the unique X-32B and X-35C, which were tested at the nearby Naval Air Station Patuxent River, home to the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School. However, in 2012 the Lexington Leader reported plans for a new museum building. Hopefully this will enable much of the collection to be moved indoors.
Boeing’s X-32B first flew in March 2001 to demonstrate STOVL (short takeoff/vertical landing) flight. It achieved this in a similar way to the famous Harrier Jump Jet, with a thrust vectoring engine and fan exhaust. The heavy delta wing was redesigned to meet maneuverability and payload goals, but it was too late to incorporate these changes into the two prototypes. Furthermore, the weight of the wing meant the aircraft could only achive STOVL and supersonic flight in separate configurations.
Nevertheless, Boeing felt the X-32B had adequately demonstrated the relevant technology. The contract, however, was awarded to Lockheed’s X-35, which incorporated an innovative shaft-driven lift fan and achieved STOVL and supersonic flight in the same configuration. The appearance of the X-32 came as a surprise to some, dominated by a chin-mounted air intake similar to earlier jets like the A-8 Crusader and A-7 Corsair II. Boeing’s other X-32 demonstrator (the X-32A) is displayed at the National Museum of the USAF in Dayton, Ohio.
Lockheed Martin X-35C
Unlike the A/B variant, the Lockheed X-35C was designed with a stronger internal structure to withstand carrier operations, and larger control surfaces. More conventional in appearance than the X-32, the Lockheed effort integrated the lift fan system designed by Paul Bevilaqua and developed by Rolls-Royce. Resembling a scaled-down F-22 Raptor, the X-35’s design and performance impressed government decision makers. Despite ongoing delays and cost overruns, the production F-35 is set to enter service with several nations including the UK, replacing a variety of jets from the Harrier to the F-16 and F/A-18. The X-35B (converted from X-35A), meanwhile, is displayed at the National Air and Space Museum near Washington, D.C.
Keep reading – visit 3 Top Secret Technology Demonstrators Now Declassified, and explore the Mysterious Top Secret Aircraft Burial Sites of Groom Lake (Area 51).