A test flight of an F-35C is conducted in January. (Lockheed Martin)
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WASHINGTON and MELBOURNE, Australia — The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has been cleared to resume flight operations, six days after a crack discovered in the engine caused the fleet to be grounded.
Flights will resume Friday afternoon weather permitting, according to program officials.
"Following engineering analysis of the turbine blade which developed a crack, F-35 flight operations have been cleared to resume," the Joint Program Office and Pratt & Whitney said in a joint statement, released late Thursday night.
"This decision concludes a cautionary flight suspension that began on Feb. 21 after a 0.6 inch crack was found on a 3rd stage turbine blade of a test aircraft at the Edwards Air Force Base F-35 Integrated Test Facility during a routine inspection. Comprehensive tests on the blade were conducted at the Pratt & Whitney facility in Middletown, Connecticut. The engine in question is part of the F-35 test aircraft fleet, and had been operated at extreme parameters in its mission to expand the F-35 flight envelope. Prolonged exposure to high levels of heat and other operational stressors on this specific engine were determined to be the cause of the crack."
"No additional cracks or signs of similar engine stress were found during inspections of the remaining F135 inventory."
"No engine redesign is required as a result of this event. Within the current DoD inventory, 17 F-35s are employed in test and development at Patuxent River Naval Air Station and Edwards Air Force Base; the remaining aircraft are assigned to Eglin Air Force Base and Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, and comprise the initial F-35 training fleet."
While DoD officials bring the fleet back online, the Pentagon announced a new deal worth $333,786,000 that will lay the path for an eventual deal on lot 8 of low rate initial production (LRIP). That money is part an advance acquisition contract designed to help Lockheed prepare for manufacturing the eighth batch of fighters.
"Lockheed Martin is pleased to be awarded long lead funding for the eighth F-35 Low Rate Initial Production contract, known as LRIP 8, by the Department of Defense," Michael Rein, a Lockheed spokesman, wrote in an email. "This award provides our supplier base the stability needed to properly execute on our future production commitments. We will continue to drive down costs for these future aircraft as we have done on every previous LRIP contract."
The optimistic tone was echoed 9,000 miles away, as Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith expressed confidence in the F-35 program during comments made this week at the Australian International Airshow at Avalon, southwest of Melbourne.
"I've always been confident that in the end, the Joint Strike Fighter project would get up, that it would be successful, and that's because the entire weight of the United States is behind it," he said. "I remain confident that the Joint Strike Fighter will get up, but the risks continue to be schedule and cost."
However, Smith reiterated that he would not allow an air combat capability gap to occur between the retirement of Australia's Hornet fighters and F-35A introduction around 2020.
Australia has a requirement for up to 100 Joint Strike Fighters but faces the dilemma of either stretching out the life of its aging legacy Hornet fleet beyond its planned withdrawal date at the end of the decade or making a further interim Super Hornet purchase from Boeing.
Steve O'Bryan, Lockheed Martin vice president of F-35 program integration and business development, told reporters at the show that he was confident Australia would remain in the program.
"There is no indication from the Australian leadership of a reduction in commitment," he said.
Companies push back at criticism
Despite a return to flight, there may be long-term consequences for the second grounding of the F-35 in a month.
Only a day after Smith reaffirmed his confidence in the F-35A, U.S. project head Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan told local press at Avalon that he thought Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney would perform better if they had more skin in the game.
"What I see Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney doing today is behaving as if they are getting ready to sell me the very last F-35 and the very last engine," he told a media roundtable. "They are trying to squeeze every nickel out of that last F-35 and engine."
Both Lockheed and Pratt moved quickly to push back against Bogdan's assertions that they are not working as team players.
"Lockheed Martin is fully committed to delivering the F-35's unprecedented 5th Generation capabilities to the men and women of our Armed Forces and those of our allies" Laura Siebert, Lockheed spokeswoman, wrote in a statement. "We are singularly focused on properly executing the F-35 development, production and sustainment tasks laid out in our various contracts. We do this in partnership with Lt. Gen. Bogdan and the entire JSF Program Office and strive daily to drive costs out of the program.
"We believe we are making significant progress in enhancing affordability of the jet as evidenced by the fact that we have reduced costs by 50 percent since the procurement of the first production aircraft; by outperforming U.S. government pricing estimates for the past contract lot buys; and by reducing labor costs by 14 percent between the 4th and 5th lot contracts. Going forward, we are confident the Low Rate Initial Production 6 and 7 contracts, currently under negotiation, will achieve even greater savings for the government and taxpayers," according to the statement.
"Despite numerous cuts in the F-35 acquisition plan, Pratt & Whitney has maintained a long-term view and demonstrated our commitment by investing more than $50M dollars of our own funds and taking on risk ahead of contract schedule to prevent the program from experiencing delays," Matthew Bates, the Pratt spokesman, wrote in an email.
Bates highlighted that the engine manufacturer offered to cover cost overruns for low rate initial production Lot 5 a year ahead of what the government had requested.
"We believe it is highly unusual for a contractor to take on this level of risk at such an early stage of a program," Bates wrote. "We have also offered to assume more risk for sustainment cost through performance-based, fixed-priced provisions well ahead of plan. In addition, our investment has contributed to more than 40% of cost reduction since the delivery of our first production representative engine.
"We look forward to our continued dialogue with the Joint Program Office to further review the details of the F135 [engine] program, and to achieve alignment and further progress as the program moves ahead."
It's not the first time Bogdan has criticized the companies' JSF performance. In September, Bogdan raised eyebrows when he called the relationship between Lockheed Martin and the JPO the "worst" he had ever seen — with a delegation of Lockheed officials sitting right in front of him.
Relations between Bogdan and the contractors seemed to warm during winter, especially in December, when an agreement was finalized to purchase a fifth batch of fighters, followed quickly by a preliminary agreement on a sixth batch weeks later.
But the second major grounding of the F-35 in the last month appears to have tested Bogdan's patience. In January, the Marine Corps' F-35B variant was grounded following an engine problem during a test flight. The source of that problem was later identified as an improperly crimped line in the fueldralic system, manufactured by subcontractor Stratoflex.
Last Friday, nine days after the F-35B resumed tests, the entire F-35 fleet was grounded when a crack was discovered in one of the blades in the Pratt-designed engine.