Boeing X-32: The F-32 That Never Happened... | International Aviation HQ (2024)

Boeing X-32: The F-32 That Never Happened... | International Aviation HQ (1)

The F-35 program has been mired in controversy since day one. However, few care to remember the Boeing X-32, the F-32 that never was. The X-32 was Boeing’s answer to Lockheed Martin’s X-35, now the F-35.

Had the X-32 entered service, it would’ve entered service as the Boeing F-32. It would’ve also been the second Boeing aircraft to achieve STOVL (short takeoff and vertical landing), after the McDonnell Douglas-produced Harrier.

Pre X-32

Before the X-32, and by extension, the X-35 (now the F-35), the world was a less stealthy place. Fighter jets like the F-14, F-15, F-16, Harrier and F-18 were the most common US fighters.

Despite these aircraft still being relatively new, there was no replacement for them. This began to make military analysts and generals worry as the newly formed Russian Federation may still be a threat (as the USSR was).

In 1993, DARPA launched the Common Affordable Lightweight Fighter project (CALF) to address this. That same year, the DoD ordered the Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST) project to do the same.

For reasons mostly pertaining to simplicity, the US Congress ordered the to project to be merged into the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program. Due to this program was the most lucrative military contract in history.

As such, almost every aircraft manufacturer in the world submitted proposals for new aircraft that fit the bill. At the same time, many other countries’ militaries joined the JSF program, pledging to buy the winner’s aircraft.

Since the birth of the industry, aircraft manufacturers have generally had to fund their own designs and developments. However, the JSF program was different, not only because it wanted stealth aircraft, but also for another reason…

The US military understood the weight of this program- aircraft manufacturers would invest so much money into the program in order to win it. Even to the point of bankrupting themsleves.

As such, the US military gave both Boeing and Lockheed Martin (other firm’s designs were rejected) $750 million each to develop a working prototype. To develop everything from avionics to hardware to software.


Following the US military choosing the designs of both Lockheed Martin (later the Lockheed Martin X-35) and Boeing (later the Boeing X-32) in 1996, the designing began…


Boeing decided to try to make the X-32 on price. Using the $750 million, Boeing took a portion of it and revamped one of its production lines. These production lines were state of the art and had a higher level of automation.

Whilst this cost a small number of jobs, it also reduced costs for Boeing. In turn, the aircraft produced on these production lines can be offered at a much lower price.

Boeing had hoped that even if the X-35 outperformed the X-32, the X-32’s price alone would convince the US military to buy it over the superior X-35.

One of the main parts of the JSF program was that the aircraft had to have a low aspect ratio, in order to be a stealth aircraft. To do this, Boeing designed the X-32 to have very jagged edges, in order to deflect radar waves.

In order to keep this, and to make the X-32 supersonic, Boeing designed the X-32 with a delta wing. Whilst this gave the X-3 a lower aspect ratio and faster speeds, it reduced maneuverability.

Another part of the JSF specifications were that the aircraft needed to have STOVL (short takeoff and landing) capabilities. To do this, Boeing took a design it had abandoned in the 1960’s, for supersonic V/STOL aircraft.

To do this, Boeing used direct-lift thrust vectoring. This used an engine with two exhaust ports, rather than just one. One of these was at the back for normal flight, whilst the other was at the center of gravity for STOVL.

Design Changes

Boeing X-32: The F-32 That Never Happened... | International Aviation HQ (2)

Despite all of this, the JSF specifications were not iron-clad. This was shown in 1999, when the US Navy altered its specifications for payload and maneuverability. This resulted in the Boeing X-32 not fitting the specifications.

The main issue was not that the specifications were unreasonable or that the X-32 needed a significant redesign. Instead, it was down to the fact that Boeing was already construction two X-32 demonstrators.

As such, Boeing engineers were forced to make extremely quick modifications to the X-32 in order to fit these new, revised specifications. However, many of the engineers claimed it would’ve been easier to start from scratch.

Boeing engineers removed the X-32’s conventional monotail in favor for a composite-made, canted twin tail. This gave the X-32 added maneuverability and reduced weight in order to increase the payload.

Eight months later, in December 1999, Boeing revealed two Boeing X-32 demonstrators. One was an X-32A, where the other was an X-32B. This was a surprise, as many believed that Boeing would only build one.

Flight Testing

In October 2000, Lockheed had unveiled their completed prototype, designated as the X-35. By 2001, test flights had begun on both the Lockheed Martin X-35 and Boeing X-32, with both military and civil test pilots.

The first test flights were done on the USAF derivative of the X-32, the X-32A. Many of the first X-32A test flights were conducted by Boeing-employed test pilots, whilst the later ones were by military test pilots.

The X-32A’s first test flight was somewhat of a success. Whilst the aircraft flew its mission successfully, it was later found that a minor hydraulic leak had occurred, causing the pilot some mild issues.

During this flight, and according to an off-the-record interview with the Boeing-employed test pilot, Fred Knox, the F/A-18 chase plane required “a lot of afterburner” in order to keep up with the X-32.

In late March 2001, the X-32B began its own test flights, after Lockheed Martin had completed their X-35C demonstrator. Many of the first flights were the same flights done by the X-32A, months previously.

Within a few months, the X-32B was doing rigorous testing with the X-32B’s STOVL capabilities. Many of these missions saw the X-32 taking off from short runways, flying long missions, before vertically landing.


The last test flights concluded in July 2001. Here, the US military collected data from the tests of both the Boeing X-32 and the Lockheed Martin X-35, as well as interviewing the military-employed X-32 and X-35 test pilots.

For several months, the US military and their allies evaluated both the Boeing X-32 and Lockheed Martin X-35. Eventually, the US and their allies decided on the Lockheed Martin X-35.

When announcing this, the reasoning was that the X-35 consistently outperformed the X-32 on the battlefield. And in particular, the speed difference, where the X-32 exceeded on, was negligible.

The Lockheed Martin X-35 was modified slightly and entered production as the F-35. Immediately following this, many Washington State senators and congressmen began lobbying to make Boeing a subcontractor for the F-35.

This move was mainly under the guise of getting the most out of the $750 million investment, although has since been criticized as a move to get more jobs for Boeing.

Boeing subsequently turned the production lines it had improved with the $750 million from the government into F/A-18 Super Hornet production lines. Had the X-32 entered service, it would’ve been made on these production lines.


Boeing X-32: The F-32 That Never Happened... | International Aviation HQ (3)

Despite never going beyond the test flight phase, Boeing, as with Lockheed Martin had designed three variants of the X-32. The two X-32 demonstrators that were built, were either USAF (X-32A) or USN (X-32B) X-32s.

The only difference between the three variants is their range, which would have been accomplished with larger/smaller internal fuel tanks depending on the variant.

SpecificationsBoeing X-32
Length45ft 0.1in (13.72m)
Wingspan36ft 0in (10.97m)
Height17ft 3.8in (5.28m)
Max. Speed1,000kn (1,200mph; 1,931km/h)
USAF Range850 nmi (1574 km, 978 mi)
USN Range750 nmi (1389 km, 863 mi)
USMC/RN Range600 nmi (1112 km, 690 mi)
ArmamentM61A2cannon; 6xAMRAAMair-air missiles

What Was it Like to Fly The Boeing X-32?

As you can probably imagine, much of the material about the X-32 is still highly classified. Many of the test pilots who flew the X-32 on behalf of Boeing and the US military, signed contracts that forbade them talking to the press.

Throughout my research on the X-32, I could only find one interview with one pilot, US Marine Corps pilot Major Jeff Karnes, given in the early 2000’s. And even then, this interview was quite brief and was particularly vague.

Major Karnes was an X-32B pilot during the US military’s evaluation of the aircraft. At the time of the interview, the X-32B had just arrived at Patuxent River Naval Air Station with a handful of USMC F-18s for dogfight testing.

During the course of this very short interview, Major Karnes seemed very optimistic about the X-32B’s handling, claiming that there was almost no difference between it and the simulator he’d been training on.

Immediately following this statement, Major Karnes stated that the X-32 could be fueled up and would probably beat the contingent of F-18s that had accompanied him to Patuxent River Naval Air Station.


Due to how recently the X-32 was chosen, as well as the controversy surrounding the F-35, many avgeeks have fantasized about what a Boeing F-32 would’ve looked like.

For many avgeeks, they have still criticized the Boeing X-32. The design in particular has come under attack, with many claiming that had it entered service, the enemy would’ve crashed laughing at the design, rather than from the F-32 itself.

Other avgeeks have continually said that the X-32 should be slightly altered and enter service in a ground attack role to compliment the F-35. Many of them have given it an unofficial codename of the A-32 or F/A-32.


Despite only being an experimental aircraft, and especially one that failed, you wouldn’t really have expected that the X-32 would’ve left much of an impact. But, you’d be wrong…


For most of its history, Boeing has produced some of the US military’s best aircraft. Each time they have failed a contract, they have learned something different.

With the X-32 they learned that looks are as important as specs. A cursory glance at the X-32 and X-35 show two completely different approaches to the their designs.

Both the X-32 and X-35 have similar aspect ratios, but the way that they have gone about it is completely different. The X-32 was more about speed, and therefore needed to be narrow.

Compared to the X-35 which wanted more weaponry. As such, Lockheed Martin, under Ben Rich’s guidance, build the X-35 to be wider, but shorter that the X-32, in order to have larger bomb bays.

This gave both the X-32 and X-35 some of the strangest aircraft designs ever seen before the 2000’s. However, the X-32’s design in particular was very strange, with many saying it was the ugliest aircraft ever!

With that in mind, and alongside the X-35’s perceived better performance in test flights, as well as its larger weapons payload, the X-35 won the JSF competition.

Boeing X-32

Boeing X-32: The F-32 That Never Happened... | International Aviation HQ (4)

In October 2001, the Department of Defense announced that the X-35 had won the JSF competition. This made the two X-32 prototypes irrelevant, as no military would need production F-32s.

Between October 2001 and 2005, the two prototype X-32s were placed in storage by Boeing. Over this time, and due to their rigorous testing, the X-32s were in very bad condition, with much of them being rusted.

However, in 2005, both X-32s were pulled out of storage and placed on display at two different aviation museums, both of which are operated by the US military.

In early 2005, the X-32A was transferred from Boeing’s storage facility to theNational Museum of the United States Air Forcein Ohio. For the rest of 2005, the X-32 went under restoration before being placed on display.

Also in 2005, the X-32B was transported from Boeing’s storage facility to Patuxent River Naval Air Museumnear theNAS Patuxent Riverbase inSt. Mary’s County, Maryland.

In June 2009, the X-35B’s condition had deteriorated from being an outdoors display. As such, the museum pulled it from display to be restored, before finally being put back on display later that year.

Future Aircraft

Despite fifth generation fighters like the F-35 only recently entering service, most militaries are looking for new aircraft. These aircraft, commonly referred to as sixth generation fighters, will replace fourth generation fighter.

They will replace aircraft like the F-16 and F-18 for the US military as well as the Typhoon and Rafales for European militaries.

Currently, there are several sixth generation fights in development around the world. Three of these are in the United States, although only one has been officially revealed to the public.

Boeing is the only to have revealed some information about this aircraft, codenamed the Boeing F/A-XX. Whilst there have only been artist’s interpretations of what the aircraft may look like, there is one thing that stands out…

The Boeing F/A-XX, especially the first interpretation, does bear a cursory resemblance to the X-32. Perhaps it is just me, but the co*ckpit, wing and nose designs seem eerily familiar, almost as if they are modified X-32s.

However, in other ways, the X-32 and F/A-XX are very different. Where the X-32 has a very stocky fuselage, giving it one of the strangest aircraft designs, the F/A-XX has a very seamless fuselage, giving it an elegance.

What do you think of the Boeing X-32? Should it have won the JSF competition? Tell me in the comments!

Boeing X-32: The F-32 That Never Happened... | International Aviation HQ (2024)


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