People look at the F-35B and see an ultra modern transformer of sorts, with massive doors that open up and an articulated exhaust tube that seems to warp downward unnaturally on command. The next thing you know the 5th generation stealth fighter is HOVERING IN MID AIR. Lay on decent range (for a V/STOL fighter), higher than mach speeds, and the most cutting edge radar and avionics package ever and you have a truly groundbreaking design…
…But is the F-35B’s unique design really that ground breaking at all?
The F-35B’s novel lift fan and vectoring tailpipe design was conceived not in Fort Worth, Texas but in Moscow, Russia, about 35+ years ago! The Yak-41 that utilized this exact same concept, now known as the Yak-141, NATO codename “Freestyle,” was designed to be what it’s much lacking Yak-38 predecessor should have been. It’s main role was to defend the Soviet Naval Fleet, and because of this task it had to be fast, fairly maneuverable and possess a relevant combat radius to get it to the boat and back. The aircraft would be supported by a new type Soviet carriers, optimized for protecting large flotillas and shipping lanes. Later in the program the aircraft would be seen as much more than just a Naval point defense fighter. Soviet Russia planned on procuring wheeled landing and takeoff platforms that could be dispersed throughout the countryside, allowing the Russian Air Force to operate Yak-141s dispersed across the countryside. With its innovative wheeled platform it was said that if a 4 wheel drive could get there the Yak-141 could have operated from there!
Like many promising late Soviet weapons and space programs the Yak-141 fell victim of a total lack of funding, but this happened well after the handful of test airframes had been flown and many of the major kinks had been identified so that the airframe could be refined in the later production examples. From most accounts the aircraft was a good performer. It possessed good maneuverability, fast cruise and dash speeds, had lots of room for gas and the latest avionics. All things being equal, the “Freestyle” may have been a major success for Red Russia, and could have thrived in the export market. By the fall of the Soviet Union in the early nineties the program was set aside by the Russian Government do to lack of funds. Yakovlev OKB went in search of an investing partner domestically without success. But not everyone looked over the fading Yak-141 program, Lockheed Martin jumped in where the fledging Russian government left off. Was LockMart’s involvement focused on exploiting Yak’s innovative design for possible use in the budding Joint Strike Fighter concept, that at the time had begun to gain traction in the Pentagon, or was their involvement actually focused on producing the aircraft for export as they initially indicated? Who knows, but Lockheed DID pay for the Yak-141 to fly at the Paris Air Show to promote the partnership (not 100% sure of this fact in the Yak-141’s timeline, feel free to drop me a note if this is wrong, going on memory here folks). What IS known is that what would usually be written off by the west as a clumsy Russian experimental design showed enough promise for Lockheed to not just show interest but fully partner in the program. There MUST have been a novel solution for their looming JSF challenge within the Yak-141’s design. It turns out there was.
The Yak-Lockmart partnership seemed to disappear into oblivion after an exciting and well publicized start. BUT by the mid 1990’s Lockheed was busy designing their prototype Joint Strike Fighter, known as the X-35, in preparations for a fly off between it and the Boeing X-32 at the turn of the millennium. The X-35 was REMARKABLY similar to the Yak-141 design concept and was much more mature (especially the VTOL “B” model) when compared to Boeing’s competing “Ugly Guppy” design. In the end the X-35 would beat the X-32 to become the US’s largest weapons program of all time. It cannot be denied that in some ways the victorious X-35 design was due to Yakovlev OKB’s hard work almost as much as it was Lockheed Martin’s, although 99% of the world will never know this.
Seeing the F-35B operating from a ship for the first time recently was like a total flashback to video of I vaguely remember watching as a kid of the Yak-141 operating from Admiral Gorshkov, and for good reason because the aircraft are indeed direct relatives of one another. So next time you see an energizing promotional video or television ad from Lockheed Martin featuring the F-35 with the American flag waving in the background, remember that there is a little more red in their red, white and blue fighter than Lockheed would like to admit!