PBS goes Tom Clancy for a night.

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Feb. 4 2003 6:42 PM

Top Guns

PBS goes Tom Clancy for a night.

Boeing's X-32A: X-tremely ugly
Boeing's X-32A: X-tremely ugly

In 1996, Lockheed Martin and Boeing entered into a competition to design a fighter plane that could land on an aircraft carrier, evade enemy radar, and hover like a helicopter. The winner would score a defense contract worth $200 billion. A thrilling prospect—and so begins Nova's "Battle of the X-Planes" (PBS, Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET). This competition took place among men for whom both warfare and engineering snafus are a constant preoccupation—shuttle disaster or no shuttle disaster, war or no war.

Hundreds of engineers at both companies, nearly all of them with neat hair and mustaches, looked for inspiration to the F-22, a near-perfect fighter that, at $100 million, is nonetheless too expensive.  They also scrutinized the widely adored Harrier, a versatile fighter favored by the British, who, intriguingly, partnered with the United States in developing the new plane. The Harrier specializes in short takeoffs and quick vertical landings, but it's also subsonic and accident-prone. Eager to beat these precedents, Lockheed and Boeing each set out to design a stealthy, agile, hovering, vertically landing, supersonic, safe airplane that was, by industry standards, cheap.

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For two hours, the show toggles from company to company and back again. Lockheed begins as the hands-down favorite, having invented the F-22 and the original U-2, while Boeing is a dark horse, a manufacturer of commercial aircraft whose last fighter was an open-cockpit number from the 1930s. Boeing does have a major asset, however: McDonnell Douglas, the mighty manufacturer of bombers that Boeing acquired after McDonnell, a former giant, was shut out of the finals.

Secreted away in its notorious Skunk Works, Lockheed starts off boldly, revising the pricey F-22 and suffering a setback only when a $30 million "accounting error" lands the company in a suspiciously brief financial probe. Along with a rear-mounted engine, Lockheed's new X-35 uses a powerful fan that permits a helicopter-like landing. Boeing's prototype, the delta-shaped X-32, uses only one engine, which is lodged in the center of the plane. For reasons I couldn't figure out, the engine's position obliges Boeing to create a wide gaping smile—an "air inlet"—under the nose of their plane. The result is that Boeing's plane looks like a mad dolphin, a creation "only its mother could love," as one engineer puts it.

Lockheed's X-35B: a manly machine
Lockheed's X-35B: a manly machine

As the drama over aeronautics heated up, I didn't think that the Boeing plane's appearance would sway my opinion of it—maybe I'd even start to like the clownish underdog. It was no use: The X-32 looked so dumb and harmless that I couldn't even enjoy its tricks once it got airborne. Fighter planes should look sharp, boasting stripes, at least, or DeLorean doors. But this one didn't, and I wanted another glimpse of the mean-eyed X-35.

I got it. Halfway through the show, Lockheed's test pilot, Lt. Col. Paul Smith, flies its plane into the big sky at Edwards Airforce Base, over a firm, dry lake bed. (The better for skidding to a stop when brakes fail.) The plane rips through the air, busting the Western skies out of their tranquility. Exhilarated, Smith describes feeling of "a powerful, very steady amount of acceleration right through my back"—the sense that the plane had to be restrained or it would take him around the globe before he knew it. After a similar trial, Boeing's pilot, Fred Knox, says only, "I'm happy with the plane."

Then come the list of tests: Can each plane break the speed of sound? Can each land straight down, like a helicopter? And then: Can each fly supersonically and then make a vertical landing? On this last challenge, Boeing's plane has trouble. It has to be shorn of its supersonic gear in order to be light enough to land vertically. The engineers protest that this is a glitch they'll work out, but no one is convinced.

"Battle of the X-Planes" is narrated by Liev Schreiber, who has developed a dignified sideline doing voice-over for PBS. For this show, he has to deliver lines like "Fasten your seatbelt and put up your tray table. You've landed in the classified world of the X-planes." But he gets away with it, almost entirely because the sight of these planes is enough to bring out the whooping male preteen in all of us, especially when we're given aerials, helmet-cam shots, and views from under a plane's wheels, all in rapid video-game succession. (James Fallows reported incisively on the competition in last June's Atlantic, but nothing beats these visuals.)

For the duration of the high-flying show, qualms about defense spending, manned air missions, and war in general subside. For one night, these killer planes seem to exist only to inspire awe—and complex plastic models, which a happy, peaceful kid could assemble and then bring safely into a vertical landing.