Killing the Brain Dead Zombies: The “Debate” on F-35 Testing


09/02/2011 by Ed Timperlake

One of the great plot devices in suspense and horror movies is the surprise ending, just name the threat; zombies, aliens, vampires or the bunny boiling Glenn Close, whatever the threat is, it comes back to attack after being vanquished. Sadly it is over used and now an expected cliché.

Unfortunately, the honorable men and women in DOD and the Defense Industry building and testing the F-35 to bring one of the most unique and effective tactical jets ever invented to the air fleet inventory of USAF,USN, USMC  and our Allied combat forces may still be  living this plot device everyday.

They are all working together to get the job done especially now that the proven capability of the F-35 is not in doubt

Sort of equivalent to Billy Mitchell’s destroying battleships with airplanes and being told to forget about it.

As the movie opened,  the F-35 type/model/series was hit by an analytical slur of being called a “Trillion Dollar” aircraft. To get to that headline catching number, tax paid USG employees truly in a feat of remarkable analysis here-to-for unknown in the history of cost accounting, made it up.  They projected costs out to the year 2065. Not since Zager and Evans sang the song “In the year 2525” has such a vision been expressed.

When the “Trillion Dollar” number was announced the Editor in Chief of the Air Force Magazine metaphorically, since we are using a zombie analogy, destroyed the number by destroying the thinking that compiled such foolishness.

As Editor of Second Line of Defense Forum, I published this from Mr. Adam J Herbert-

But as credits are rolling, the cliche plot twist yet again tries to scare the  audience -“It is Back. ” In a most recent Bloomberg news article about uncovering weakness found in the strength of materials testing with the F-35, which is actually a very good news story,  the “Trillion Dollar Zombie” came back- “A preliminary Pentagon estimate already pegs F-35 operating costs at as much as $1 trillion”

Unfortunately, it is the zombie that apparently can not be killed even though many smart honorable people have continually tried  to actually build  a solid foundation for the cost debate about the F-35. Now with Congress coming back in session unthinking zombies roam the Halls on both sides of Capital Hill and both sides of the political aisle.

But enough is enough, time for some reality and factual context.

I have had an interest in TacAir for over four decades and currently have been going back in time to assess how far in the media the F-35 “Trillion” Dollar analytical slur has gone and found one of the first “zombie spotting”  articles.

The reporting is from Bloomberg News one of the most respected sources for accurate and timely financial information in the world. Could anyone imagine if a Fortune 50 or an IPO approached the U.S. (or Foreign) Capital Markets with a financial disclosure form like the “Trillion Dollar” analytical slur? It would be actionable because since such a hollow made up analysis would materially affect shareholder equity.

Such a submission from a private sector firm would be trashed beyond belief by the professionals at Bloomberg and other respected Wall Street news sources and ultimately trigger an SEC investigation, that is if they could stop laughing. And I suspect the insightful and very smart professional’s at Bloomberg would be leading that charge-yet a USG report that also affects shareholder equity is taken at face value and repeated again and again.

Since the residual and “so yesterday” F-35 cost fight appears to be falling under DC “financial” rules which is make it up as you go vice NY rules that this is very “serious stuff” and the SEC is watching. Net net as they use to say on Wall Street the Trillion Dollar number must be finally destroyed by being disavowed by the Department of the Navy, or everything to follow in the debate about  the F-35 can be considered bogus.“work”-the-problem/

“Finally, one last point about any future cost analysis Mr. Under Secretary–please disavow the analytical slur of a “Trillion Dollars” or no DON cost analysis can ever be taken seriously again.”

Now on to the good news about testing and the current issue being reported. The entire idea of flight test and structural analysis is to find out problems early because every mechanical system needs to be tested. The automotive industry shows us that everyday as the proud owner of a car takes it to the dealer for scheduled maintenance. The maintenance required, which costs money is derived by testing and calibrated by miles driven. There is no difference with aircraft testing except of course ones Prius does not go supersonic or pull 6+ “Gs.”

The real difference is  there has been less testing because fewer T/M/S aircraft are being developed. Currently, it is just the F-35 and some with no previous experience think they are discovering something new. Before reporting on aviation flight test younger reporters should watch the great movie “The Right Stuff.”

Having a personal stake in finding problems early was brought to my personal attention when I ejected at night out of a fireball at around 500 feet that had been my very comfortable jet. The fuel line between the fuel pump (3000 psi) and the engine snapped and sprayed JP all over the back of my T2-Buckeye twin engine jet on take off. I am glad the zero-zero seat worked. So I pay close attention to flight-testing.

The uniqueness of the F-35 testing over previous testing of legacy aircraft, the F-16, and the F/A-18 and even F-22 is that it was designed for cost avoidance.  The goal and unbroken contract between honorable men and women in both industry and government is to find fix problems as early as possible. And as I know there are always problems.  This is not new-just look at automotive recalls.

The nature of the flight test process is to create demanding, intentionally rigorous and unforgiving flight profiles to find and fix problems. Having “an up and up” (airframe and system) is a sacred trust from the factory floor to the combat pilot high above the Pacific ready to fight against all enemies. To make more out of problems found in flight test is just a shallow “gotch ya” PR game because those directly involved have their personal honor on the line to not pass on problems to the fleet.

This is not hyperbole because a comparison of some charts from the legacy aircraft mentioned show that parts break and in the past testing regimes it actually took longer to find and fix. There are no zombies in aviation manufacturing and testing-just men and women doing their very best.