How a Soviet jump jet lead to a version of the Joint Strike Fighter

The F-35B is a short takeoff, vertical landing fighter intended to replace the AV-8B Harrier, but it uses a very different system to achieve its V/STOL capability than the Harrier.

PACIFIC OCEAN-- A F-35B Lightning II hovers before landing aboard the USS America (LHA 6) during the Lighning Carrier Proof of Concept Demonstration, November 19, 2016. The demonstration is the first shipboard Marine Corps F-35B integration demonstration alongside other Marine Corps Air Combat Element assets, and marks a milestones as the most F-35Bs aboard a ship, ever. (U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Cpl. Thor Larson/Released)

PACIFIC OCEAN– A F-35B Lightning II hovers before landing aboard the USS America (LHA 6) during the Lighning Carrier Proof of Concept Demonstration, November 19, 2016. (U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Cpl. Thor Larson/Released)

The Harrier uses vectored thrust, having four nozzles tilt to get the jet to take off vertically. It works well, and the Harrier did win the Falklands War for the British in 1982. But why does the F-35B use a different system? It’s an interesting tale – and to tell it, we must look to the Soviet Union.

Now, this tale kind of goes back to when the F-35 was merely the X-35, one of two competitors for the Joint Strike Fighter title. There was a rival from Boeing, which had acquired McDonnell-Douglas who had teamed up with British Aerospace to make the AV-8B.

Boeing’s plane was the X-32, but it quickly got the nickname “Monica.” And no, not the one played by Courtney Cox on “Friends.”

Like the AV-8B, the X-32B used vectored thrust to achieve its V/STOL capability. The approach was proven and worked well.

The X-32 takes off for Naval Air Station Patuxent River, MD, from Little Rock AFB in 2001. The X-32 was one of two experimental aircraft involved in the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program. The program is intended to provide a universal air attack platform for all branches of the American armed services. (DOD photo)

The X-32 takes off for Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, from Little Rock AFB in 2001. The X-32 was one of two experimental aircraft involved in the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program. The program is intended to provide a universal air attack platform for all branches of the American armed services. (DOD photo)

Lockheed’s X-35B, though, went with a very different approach. The F-35B uses a lift-fan that gets power diverted from the main engine, while the rear nozzle also can vector downward.

This was not the first time someone decided not to use vectored thrust to gain V/STOL capability. The Yak-38 Forger, the Soviet Union’s only operational V/STOL multi-role plane, used a pair of additional lift jets for its V/STOL capability.

Now, the Forger was a notch or two below the Brewster Buffalo in terms of being a decent combat plane. It had a top speed of 795 miles per hour, a range of roughly 800 miles, and could carry two tons of bombs. No internal gun was present, and the only air-to-air missiles it could use were the old AA-2 “Atoll” or the wimpy AA-8 “Aphid.” Neither, it should be noted, were all-aspect missiles.

Modern avionics? Well, the Yak-38M that saw service never had them. The Yak-38MP was to get the same suite used on the MiG-29 Fulcrum, but the end of the Cold War meant that bird never flew.

Right side view of a Soviet Yak-36 Forger aircraft on the deck of a Soviet aircraft carrier.

Right side view of a Soviet Yak-36 Forger aircraft on the deck of a Soviet aircraft carrier.

But it was an effort to replace the Yak-38 that arguably lead to the F-35B being the way it is. Yakovlev began to design the Yak-141 Freestyle as the limitations of the Yak-38 became obvious. The end of the Cold War meant that the program never left the prototype stage.

But the data was acquired by Lockheed in 1994.

So, why did Lockheed buy that data when Yakovlev’s only operational V/STOL fighter was a piece of junk? The answer is that vectored thrust compromised the combat flight performance of the AV-8B.

Lockheed’s way of powering the lift fan worked out well. They didn’t need two extra jets on the Forger, and they ditched the thrust-vectoring. The X-35 won the competition, beating out the X-32.

So, in one sense, the Yak-38’s legacy now includes the F-35B Lightning II.

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