The Future Takes Flight


On this day in economic and financial history ...

Dec. 15 is an important day in modern aviation history. Two advanced aircraft took their first flights on this day: Lockheed Martin's F-35 in 2006, and Boeing's 787 Dreamliner in 2009. Boeing's next-gen passenger jet has since gone into active service, but the United States' fighter jet of the future is still years from entering military service.

Air superiority from day one -- in theory
The F-35 began its life a decade before its first flight, when the Pentagon first signed a development contract for the Joint Strike Fighter program with both Lockheed and Boeing. The program was meant to replace multiple existing military jet fighters. It required one common design using three variants: a conventional takeoff and landing version, a carrier-focused fighter adapted for mechanically assisted takeoffs and landings, and one fighter capable of both short takeoffs and vertical landings.

The two contractors submitted their prototypes in 2001, with Lockheed's X-35 beating out Boeing's X-32 for the final contract. The F-35 evolved from the X-35, with the final design 5 inches longer and 1 inch higher in the fuselage, and with a larger weapons bay in one of the variants . Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems were selected as Lockheed's primary technology and component suppliers, and Pratt & Whitney supplies the engine.

Initial manufacturing began in 2003. The first flight, undertaken by the conventional takeoff and landing variant, took place five years later, on Dec. 15, 2006.

Unfortunately, the F-35 program has been plagued with cost overruns and production delays as Lockheed struggles to meet the Pentagon's requirements for nearly 2,500 aircraft across three platforms. The F-35 has become a symbol of military wastefulness, prompting U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to vent that "the culture of endless money that has taken hold must be replaced by a culture of restraint."

A 2011 feature in The Atlantic, titled "The F-35: A Weapon That Costs More Than Australia," is filled with indictments of the program and the military culture that has allowed it to grow into such a huge expense for the United States. The article's author is one of many voices who have spoken out against the F-35, which appears to have little purpose in the drone-driven asymmetric battlefield that the American is now most familiar with.

Although the United States is by far Lockheed's largest customer for the F-35, several other friendly nations around the world have contributed development funding and placed orders for several hundred F-35s. They will have to wait for some time, as the American military doesn't expect to put the new fighters into service until at least 2017.

The Dreamliner takes flight
Boeing's 787 fact sheet claims that it uses 20% less fuel than other similarly sized airplanes, thanks in part to a higher use of composite materials in construction, but moreso because of advanced jet engines from General Electric and Rolls Royce. Spirit Aerosystems is Boeing's most critical partner in this endeavor, as it supplies both the fuselage and the flight deck components, the two largest parts of the 787. Boeing and its many supplier partners have a backlog of at least 835 airplanes to work through, worth an estimated $180 billion.

The 787 has been subject to many delays throughout its production. Originally announced as the "7E7" in early 2003, the first 787 didn't enter construction until 2007. Its first flight, originally planned for August 2007, was pushed back at least six times, until the big bird finally flew on Dec. 15, 2009. It took another two years to get finished 787s to airliners, with All Nippon Airways of Japan receiving the first finished craft in the third quarter of 2011.

Boeing's 787 is crucial to its future as one of the world's two leading aircraft manufacturers, but constant delays haven't helped its standing with the airlines. Can the company recover and allow its shares to take flight? The Fool's best analysts have been digging deep into all aspects of this sprawling company, and they've put together the best Boeing-focused premium research reports you'll find. Get the information you need to decide whether Boeing deserves a future in your portfolio -- click here to subscribe today.

Volume and volatility in the 19th century
The first million-share day in the history of the New York Stock Exchange took place on Dec. 15, 1886, a full decade before the creation of the Dow Jones Industrial Average . The New York Times reported on a "Victory for the Bears All Along the Line" as $10 million in shareholder value vanished over the course of the day. The Times' description of the trading pit is pure pandemonium: "When [the Exchange opened], and the gavel of the Chairman fell, then there was what any initiated observer in the galleries above would have naturally recognized as a jubilee of 500 dangerous lunatics."

A total of 1.1 million shares changed hands that day, with 175,000 of them from a single issue -- Reading Railroad, a familiar name to anyone who's ever played Monopoly. In the course of a week, the poor railroad had dropped from $53 per share to as low as $28 on Dec. 15.

A million shares might have been astounding then, but it's hardly noticeable in today's multibillion-share market. At the very minimum, every single Dow component today typically experiences at least twice the volume of the entire Dec. 15, 1886, market. On one recent trading day in 2012, more than 500 million shares were traded in the 30 Dow components alone.

Navigating the wild, wild Web
If you used the Internet in the latter half of the 1990s, you probably used Netscape Navigator. The leading Web browser by market share for much of the 1990s was initially released to the public, after a brief beta, on Dec. 15, 1994. It didn't take long to claim the browser crown. Within a year, Netscape Navigator had already taken half of the market by storm, and by 1996 it was being used by nearly 80% of the online population. Its decline was nearly as swift.

Netscape's battle for browser dominance became a key point in the government's antitrust case against Microsoft , which had pivoted hard to the Internet following a 1995 edict from CEO Bill Gates. The launch of Windows 95 was then turning Microsoft into the hottest company in computing, and the company decided to play hardball with Netscape. Microsoft's Internet Explorer might not have been as powerful or as technologically adept as Netscape's Navigator, but it had two very important things going for it: It was free (Netscape charged most users), and Microsoft gave it top billing on its dominant operating system. By the end of 1997, Netscape was hemorrhaging money and had already begun to lose significant market share.

Netscape went public a year after it released Navigator 1.0, and that IPO became the unofficial Bubble Zero (the first company infected with "dot-com fever," so to speak) -- but Netscape never recovered from its early battles with Microsoft. AOL bought Netscape in 1999, shelling out an absurd $10 billion worth of AOL shares for a dying browser company that by that point owned less than half the market. Netscape continued to release browser updates until 2008, by which point the irrelevant Navigator, all but abandoned by the world, finally shuffled off to the big cloud storage drive in the sky.

Microsoft claimed the lead after Netscape's failure, but it didn't hold on for long. Today, Microsoft's in a losing battle with other browsers for the market leadership, and its other Internet efforts have hemorrhaged money at a far worse rate than Netscape could ever imagine. Will Microsoft ever be a true Internet company, or is it doomed to be a pretender forever? The Fool's Microsoft-focused premium research service examines all aspects of Microsoft's vast tech empire, with honest assessments of its future that any investor can use. Want to learn more? Click here to subscribe now.

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Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter @TMFBiggles for more news and insights.The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Spirit Aerosystems and creating a synthetic covered call position in Microsoft. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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