What happens to prototype aircraft?

Take the JSF programme. A tender was put out to aerospace contractors, Boeing built a prototype X-32 and Lockheed-Martin built a prototype X-35. In the end, Lockheed-Martin’s design won out, but what happens to the plane that Boeing built? Is it immediately destroyed for reasons of secrecy? Is there some hangar somewhere with hundreds of one-offs?

I don’t know about the JSF specifically, but some prototypes end up in aviation museuems. If you go to the website for the Smithsoinian Air and Space Museum and do a search for prototype you’ll get a list o prototype aircraft in their collection.

Sometimes they wind up here .

For example, the XB-70 Valkyrie

the AC-130A Gunship II

and the X-32A JSF

What happens to the companies that lose in these deals? Did they invest all kinds of money to develop their entry, eventually finding it to be for naught? Or does the gov’t subsidize development in order to promote competition?

They might get some Department of Defense funds but they can also lose their shirts big-time if they choose the wrong project to direct resources to. The Beechcraft Starship is a prime example. Beechcraftgot in deeper and deeper until they finally decided to bail on the whole thing and cut their losses. At the end, they were determined to see every single example of the project destroyed for liability and support purposes as well as just the principle of seeing the whole thing disappear. My link lists 4 Starships remaining but my aviation magazines said that there is only one regularly operated by its owner. Beechcraft has repeatedly tried to buy it back for destruction.

On repeat reading, the Starship wasn’t a military plane but aircraft makers are subject to most of the same laws of capitalism as everyone else and they can lose it big time on a bad bet.

In the case of the JSF, the DoD choked up funds for development to both final candidates to the tune of $750M each. It seems like a lot of money down the tubes, but frankly it’s probably better spent than having the companies self-fund concept development programs where they cut corners in an effort to make flashy PowerPoint presentations of marginally functional systems. (I mean, they will anyway, but at least this way they actually do development and produce flying prototypes.) Instead, the DoD gets to pick of two actual operating machines rather than selecting between which proposal has more pages and better illustrations of ridiculous acrobatics that no plane would possibly be capable of.

On the other hand, the Light Weight Fighter program in the Seventies was totally self-funded, and when General Dynamics and Lockheed won the contract (mostly because the Navy opted not to participate, feeling that neither plane would be suitable for carrier operations), Northrop had to eat their costs. Ironically, the airframe design was said to have been essentially scaled up for the McDonell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet and SuperHornet, which became the Navy’s multi-role all-weather air superority/ground attack platform. Strange bedfellows indeed.


Far as I know, there’s no hangar filled with one-offs, unfortunately.

Any knowledge I may have of this subject comes mainly from having read Aeroplane Monthly for years and years, but what happens to prototypes depends on a number of factors. Firstly, the large-scale preservation of aircraft seems to mainly a post-WWII phenomenon, before that, nobody much cared about historic aircraft (except perhaps for record-setters) and their relatively flimsy structure meant that without maintenance they’d simply rot away to nothing.

Otherwise, some aircraft that are more or less assured series production end up with several prototypes being built. In such a case, most fly but at least one will be used a static test article. The loads put on the airframe during static testing generally stress it to the point that it could never safely be flown, so that one is pretty much guaranteed to be scrapped, or at best, stuffed and mounted for static display.

If several prototypes have been built and the design is basically sound, the protos frequently are rebuilt into the definitive production version and made operational. The manufacturer may retain one for preservation, but it’s a hard decision as the temptation to recoup some of the development cost by reusing the airframe is great.

If the protype reveals any fundamental design flaws, it may be heavily modified to determine the best solution to the various performance problems, and it then becomes something of an orphan. Of course, if the design flaws are severe enough, it crashes during flight testing and that ends the problem of what to do with it. Otherwise, museum or scrapping.

Often politics gets into the picture, especially where high-performance military aircraft are concerned. In some cases protos may be scrapped to reduce the risk of proprietary technologies becoming known to competitors or enemies, sometimes it just seems pure meanness. Promising interceptors such as the CF-105 Arrow (Canada) and TSR-2 (UK) were subjected to a sort of ‘scorched earth’ policy by their respective governments, which mandated not only complete destruction of the flight test articles but all production tooling and even the as-built docs and photos. Something similar was done with the early Northrop flying-wing bombers when the US government decided the project wasn’t worth pursuing, but oddly enough, one of four wooden, scaled-down, propeller-driven proof-of-concept Northrop prototypes was somehow overlooked, was rescued and eventually restored to flying condition and now is safely housed in a museum in California.

Commercial prototypes, I think, tend to have somewhat happier fates. For example, a Concorde prototype, complete with stripped instrumented interior, is on display at the French national air museum at Le Bourget. Others end up being sold on when the manufacturer is done with flight testing, have long careers hauling passengers or cargo, and at some spoint someone checks the airframe number and says, “Hey, this was the first of the series; let’s preserve it!” Or not.

If you represent the hopes and dreams of Canada, you get destroyed.

Then forty years later, they make a movie about you.


Correct me if I’m wrong but I heard, and a procurement Colonel confirmed to me in casual conversation, that the cost of a current generation of aircraft includes the R&D on the next generation. In other words, when Congress appropriates “X” billion dollars to buy a plane they are actually approving the development of the plane that will replace it. That’s why the hardware costs so much.

Yes, this is somewhat hearsay but it makes sense in the respect that it gives huge aircraft companies the incentive to keep their R&D guys working without risking the company’s future viability.

No, this is not true. Development costs for a particular program–say, the B2 Spirit–are amortized over the initial production run, which makes the cost per aircraft higher and the nominal manufacturing cost (often much higher; in the case of the B2, about ten times the per-unit manufacturing costs); but this doesn’t mean that they include any budget item for future development, and indeed, add-on or extension development is usually a “plus-up”, an additional cost tacked onto the budget for capabilities that are out of scope of the original specification. It could happen that a small part of the budget is explicitly allocated to developing new technology, but that’s not a standard procedure. For instance, when the Air Force decided to expand the capabilities of the Minuteman ICBM, resulting in the much more capable and accurate Minuteman II, it was a largely unique program that required the contractors to propose and bid; even though the Air Force knew that the first series Minuteman was a stepping stone, there was no budget in the original program to develop the revolutionary integrated circuit technology that lead to the much improve guidence set of MMII.

It is sometimes alleged–and may be true–that the budgets for so-called “black” projects are hidden within normal procurement costs, but I find it both unlikely that the DoD would fund things that way, and that auditors from the GAO wouldn’t pick up on excessive costs for a known system. It’s more likely such expensies are hidden in other, non-military budgets and funneled through fronts, but that’s just errant speculation. In any case, the major defense contractors have plenty of ways in ingratiate themselves with Congressmen and generals, and vice versa such that they always are assured of getting a piece of the pie.