Critics of the F-35 have jumped on the fact that it has suffered a host of problems during the developmental test process while Air Force leadership has remained bullish on the jet’s transformational potential. This isn’t the first time this dynamic has come into play while fielding an airplane.
Here are ten planes that had rough starts, but eventually became mainstays.
1. F4U Corsair
(Photo: U. S. Navy)
The “Ensign Eliminator” was a high performer, but the complexity of the plane lead to a lot of fatal accidents. In fact, at one point, the Navy was willing to let the Marine Corps use the plane from land bases during World War II, sticking with the F6F Hellcat (not a bad bird, either). The plane kicked butt, to put it mildly. Eventually, the Navy began to fly Corsairs off carriers near the end of World War II, when it needed high performance to take down kamikazes. The plane then proved to be a good ground-attack bird, particularly during the Korean War.
2. P-51 Mustang
The first version of the P-51, the P-51A, was saddled with the Allison engine. That gave it problems at higher altitudes. Still, some recognized that the P-51 had potential, and decided to try the Rolls Royce Merlin. We all know how that worked out.
3. P-38 Lightning
Hard to believe that a plane designed by the legendary Kelly Johnson of Lockheed “Skunk Works” fame would have problems. But the plane used by Tom Lanphier to take out Isoroku Yamamoto had trouble – lots of trouble. Early versions of the Lightning were crippled by issues with compressibility. One such incident over a wheat field near Rostock nearly spelled the end for the legendary Robin Olds. Eventually, new dive flaps fixed the compressibility problems, and the P-38 went on to a glorious career – with Yamamoto as the most famous “kill” among many.
4. F-111 Aardvark
(Photo: U.S. Air Force)
The “Vark” had long range, high speed, and a heavy payload. It also had teething problems that earned it the wrath from William Proxmire, who called it a “Flying Edsel.” Well, the kinks got worked out – and the plane became a reliable all-weather attack bird – and during Desert Storm, F-111E and F-111F planes flew hundreds of sorties, with no losses.
5. B-1B Lancer
It had a reputation as a “hangar queen” in the 1980s, and it had problems with the ALQ-161 jammers. Just procuring the plane was a huge fight in Congress. But in the 1990s, the B-1B came into its own as a conventional bomber.
6. C-17 Globemaster
This plane had huge issues during R&D. It nearly ended up canceled after only a few dozen airframes were built. However, the plane soon proved it was more than capable of replacing the C-141, and now is not only in service with the Air Force, but with NATO, the Royal Air Force, and a number of other countries around the world.
7. C-5 Galaxy
(U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Justin D. Pyle)
This plane had its problems, too. Cracks in the wings and cost overruns put this plane in jeopardy and lead to load limits. Those have been fixed, though, and the C-5 is getting a round of modernization that will keep in service for decades to come.
8. V-22 Osprey
(U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Julianne Showalter)
This plane was in the aviation equivalent of “development hell.” Many times, pundits, politicians, and even Dick Cheney wanted to cancel it. But the Osprey survived, became a game-changer, and now is the backbone of Marine Expeditionary Units.
9. F/A-18 Hornet
An F/A-18C Hornet with 10 AMRAAM and two AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. (Photo: U.S. Navy)
This plane had its problems, notably short range (which was somewhat overblown – in the fighter role, it actually had longer range than the F-4 Phantom), and the ever-familiar cost over-runs. But the Navy and Marine Corps stuck with the Hornet and that plane became the backbone of carrier air wings in the 1990s and early 2000s.
10. F-16 Fighting Falcon
Three U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon Block 30 aircraft from the 80th Fighter Squadron fly in formation over South Korea during a training mission. (DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Quinton T. Burris, U.S. Air Force.)
The Air Force brass initially didn’t want it. The engine would cut out in the middle of flight, forcing pilots to make deadstick landings. But the F-16’s problems were resolved, and the plane has a long service record with the United States Air Force, the Iron Eagle movie franchise, and many export buyers.
So, when people want to chop a defense program over some teething problems, just remember that even the successful planes once had those problems, too.