For fans of the F-35, it’s been an exhausting few weeks.
When the F-35A model known as AF-27 caught fire on the morning of June 23, there was instant speculation about whether it could impact the arrival in the UK. I fully admit I was one of those who believed that, come burning engine parts or high water, the Pentagon, UK MoD, and Lockheed Martin would figure out a way to make sure there was an F-35 performing at the Royal International Air Tattoo on July 11.
Then July 11 came and went. And July 12. And July 13, and then the window started to get real tight.
And then this morning, salvation seemed to arrive for those who wanted to catch a glimpse of the stealthy, hovering F-35B in action. The Pentagon announced it would allow the planes to fly, with nebulously defined “restrictions.”
Word spread around Farnborough like wildfire, and reporters chased after every scrap of detail we could get. Those involved in the program could barely contain big grins, and in many cases didn’t even try to. The plane was still not officially coming, but there was a very real sense that this was happening, that everything would work out.
Less than 12 hours later, and the F-35 will officially miss out on the show. Program officials had been planning the plane’s big international debut for months. All that buildup, all the talk about the capabilities, the grand unveiling, and the plane remains grounded somewhere at the Navy’s Pax River facility.
And you know what? It may not matter.
Sure, there is a certain amount of egg on the face because the backbone of American military aviation for the next several decades couldn’t make the trip from the US to the UK. But there doesn’t seem to be much outrage. If anything, the general sense I’ve gotten from folks over the last week amounts roughly to “aw, shucks.”
What’s striking is how much talk there has been at Farnborough over the jet, much of it genuine interest and curiosity. Almost every conversation I had with an official or executive over the past 48 hours included some variation of “so, you think it’ll make it?” Even competitors to Lockheed, who may have enjoyed a bit of schadenfreude when the jet couldn’t make the trip, seemed hopeful they could see it in action. And more digital ink has been spilled on the F-35 in the last week than any defense item at the show.
In that sense, the jet had a successful PR debut, even if it never actually got here. But I’m sure all involved would have preferred a smooth arrival and successful flight.
A few more observations:
- I do feel bad for the aviation enthusiasts who paid a not-insignificant sum to attend either RIAT or Farnborough because of the planned F-35 appearances. RIAT, in particular, would be hard, given the cost of travelling out to the show. A few in the enthusiast community reached out to me last week when it was becoming clear the jet might not make it; they were clearly upset that they would miss out. I can’t blame them a bit. Show organizers at RIAT, at least, certainly tried to capitalize on the expected event:
— Aaron Mehta (@AaronMehta) July 10, 2014
- It’s generally hard to get consensus among a group of reporters over what to order for lunch, let alone when there are a number of different countries involved. But there is a general sense that the F-35 team did a poor job communicating the issues here, essentially from the moment the fire was first reported on June 23. There has been a constant stream of conflicting reports and details since. (Nothing, of course, will top the Great Pax River Facebook Snafu of 2014.)
- Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acquisitions head, hinted at some of that in a Tuesday interview. “We generally have very good communications between the program office and our partners,” he said. “What happened in this case was that several safety authorities became involved because of the nature of what occurred, and we didn’t have as good communications in place for that. We’ve learned from that, we understand that we stumbled a little bit there, and we’ll make sure in the future that if an incident like this one happens that people are informed more quickly and more clearly about what’s going on.”
- If you are in charge of advertising or PR for Dassault, Boeing or Eurofighter, how do you handle this? Your market share is increasingly shrinking and the F-35 has won every competition it has entered in the last few years. This is the first major PR challenge for the program since it was rebaselined in 2010, and it may provide a window for counter-programming based around the concept these jets are a proven, reliable product. If they act fast, they could get something up at the show along the lines of this tweet from the (very useful) twitter account @GripenNews:
— Gripen News (@GripenNews) July 15, 2014
- Potentially more interesting: if Russia’s export team, which seems to be keeping a low profile while a scrum over show visas for Russian officials is going on, decides to try and push their own stealthy T-50.
- So with this window missed, what becomes the next international debut for the jet? The absolute edge seems to be next year in Paris, but I find it hard to believe the team behind the plane will want to wait nearly a full year to complete this operation. At the same time, it’s not clear what show would be big enough between now and then. Maybe Aero India 2015, held February in Bangalore? It’s hard to imagine, but the lucrative Pacific market will be well represented there.
- In the meantime, I’d put some small cash down on a flyby of an F-35A model during September’s Air Force Association conference outside of DC. Given how sure I was the jet would be in the UK this week, you may want to try and take my money.
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