Below is a guest post by Wendy Stewart, producer of You Served Radio podcasts.
On Tuesday, August 9,Hamilton Sunstrand and Lockheed Martin had a press briefing and F-35 demo at the Hamilton Sunstrand facility in Rockford, IL. Blackfive scraped the bottom of the barrel and came up with me to attend because I work about 15 minutes from the facility (all kidding aside, they couldn't attend and I was happy to do this because who wouldn't want to 1--write for Blackfive and 2--"fly" an F-35? I leapt at the opportunity).
The press briefing went as most go, with Andreas Schell, President of Hamilton Sundstrand Electric Systems giving introductory remarks, outlining how Sunstrand provides key components for the F-35, including the electric power generation & conversion system and the gun system control unit. He also emphasized that Sunstrand provides a stable employment source in the Rockford area, which has been hard hit with the reduced manufacturing needs of this nation. Mr. Schell went on to introduce Steve O'Bryan, Lockheed Martin's vice president of business development, Congressional Representative Don Manzullo (R-16th-Rockford), and Congressional Representative Bobby Schilling (R-17th-Moline), who all added their own remarks about how important this plane system is to the defense of our nation and to the economic health of the districts in which the plants lie.
Rep. Bobby Schilling made a great point in his opening remarks. There are few mandates specifically listed out in the US Constitution, but the defense of this nation is one of those tasks that the federal government should and must provide us all. We are 10 years into the F-35 project with few alternatives and we need an umbrella of capable, high tech, and deadly aircraft flying in our defense. The project needs to continue to completion. Schilling said he supports the continued funding of the F-35.
They ended the official briefing part and allowed the dignitaries and guests try their hand at several scenarios in the F-35 cockpit demonstrator. While the Congressmen were having a showdown on who could put the plane into the ground or water first (they both sounded a little nervous about "flying"), I got a chance to talk to Steve O'Bryan. If you know me at all or if you have listened to the Youserved podcast, you know I tend to ask the tough questions. So my first one out of the box was to ask what is going on with the current grounding of the F-35. There was an electrical failure on the ground and with the current budget battle, any perceived failures, slowdowns, or cost overruns add checkmarks to the column of why this project needs to be scrapped. It is already being listed as one of the costly projects that needs to be seriously considered to be cut by the Pentagon. Mr. O'Bryan is a former F-16 pilot and after saying that we need to wait until the investigation is complete, he pointed out the important part of taking precautions like this, "I was a pilot and this is what you want them to do. Find the root cause, corrective action, and when you have a safe, safe airplane, you return it to the air."
The most important question I asked though is how they, and I mean a collective "they," Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon, the services that will receive the planes, and even the foreign allies we have who are helping to fund this by commitments to purchase planes when they are available, how are they going to sell continuing this program to the American public?
Blackfive addressed some of the actual costs of an F-35 here and Mr. O'Bryan reiterated that information. The costs are somewhat equivalent to the current F-15s and F-16s, but with a leap in technological advances. I was recording the interviews on my phone and he pointed out that even my phone has some higher technological capabilities than the current group of planes we have in the air fighting our fight. Those systems were designed over 20 years ago. I want to expand on that phone analogy here. There are many Americans who are willing to drop $400, $800, over $1000 for upgraded communication/phone/tablet technology each year. They want the fastest, best thing they can get their hands on. And yet when it comes to putting a human in a fighter plane that is used in the defense of this nation, they balk at the development and productions costs. That is mind-boggling to me. I am from the age of the Top Gun movie. I saw it in a theater when it came out. Exciting zipping and zooming and dogfights with a little love story thrown in. Unfortunately, the planes used in that movie are the same model our pilots are still using today. We can watch CGI enhanced films of epic space battles, but there are certain segments of the population who recoil at the thought of providing real, tangible, and important updated planes to our fighting men and women.
Rep. Bobby Schilling made a great point in his opening remarks. There are few mandates specifically listed out in the US Constitution, but the defense of this nation is one of those tasks that the federal government should and must provide us all. We are 10 years into the F-35 project with few alternatives and we need an umbrella of capable, high tech, and deadly aircraft flying in our defense. The project needs to continue to completion. General Gates has been active in reining in costs and timelines, he has put Lockheed Martin on notice to keep this all in line with the Pentagon's goals and we have a good steward to get this done.
After all of that seriousness, I have to add that I got about 3 minutes in the demonstrator. That was the carrot that Blackfive used to lure me out of my office in the middle of the morning. Look, a giant video game for Wendy! I got to run a scenario where I was flung off an air craft carrier and turned around and buzzed the tower. The point of the fun and games was to show the tech. There is a glass touchscreen in the cockpit. Just like on your phone, you can switch apps with the touch of a finger. Everything is intuitive and different from what I've seen in movies of other planes. The throttle (I ride a motorcycle, so forgive me if my terms are incorrect) is on the left, the control stick on the right. It is sort of like sitting in a customized video gaming chair. I know for me, not having done anything like this, having the horizon and degrees + or - in front of me helped keep me from putting the plane in the drink (like a few others did...how did they miss that whole -55 as they slammed into the ground or water?!?).
Anyway, I got some cool swag from completing my "piss off the CAG" Top Gun move on the carrier and I want to thank Blackfive for giving me an opportunity to talk to some interesting people, to learn more about where the F-35 project is headed, and to have a brief moment of fighter pilot glory. I hope that in reality, the planes get in the hands of the pilots who can do the best with them and that our country can have the capability to maintain air superiority for years to come.