Lightning Savings: A model of the F-35 on display at the Royal International Air Tattoo in Fairford, England. (Aaron Mehta/staff)
FAIRFORD, ENGLAND — The F-35 joint strike fighter won’t be appearing at Day 1 of the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) on Friday, but officials are holding out hope it could still appear over the weekend.
“I can assure you that the US Marine Corps and the UK are sitting perched waiting at [Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland] for any word that they can move their airplanes,” US Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the head of the F-35 Joint Program Office, told reporters Thursday. “If that clearance does come, they will move. They will sit there until we exhaust the very last window of opportunity to fly either here or at Farnborough.”
The Farnborough International Airshow starts next Monday.
The issue remains the ongoing investigation into what caused an F-35A model to catch fire June 23 as it prepared to take off for a test flight at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Bogdan indicated that investigation is not close to ending.
“As of this moment, I can tell you that the air worthiness authorities are still waiting to see some more evidence of what is going on, and we are working day and night to try and provide them that evidence so they can make an assessment of when it’s safe to go back in the air,” he said.
In an odd moment, as Bogdan was making remarks to reporters and expressing hope that the plane could still make it for part of the show, RIAT organizers released a statement saying the F-35 would not be appearing at all.
Representatives for both the Joint Program Office and industry all insisted that, despite that statement, the plane still had a chance of making the show, which ends on Sunday.
Realistically, however, that window is quickly closing. It would take roughly 24 hours from the moment the F-35 is given permission to head to the UK and when it would be ready to fly at RIAT. More likely, at this point, is an appearance at the Farnborough International Airshow next week.
Bogdan acknowledged the importance of making the long-awaited international debut, both from a public relations standpoint — signs for the show, including a large billboard in London’s Paddington Station, featured “F-35 Debut” as a selling point — and for the large international audience that is expected both at RIAT and Farnborough.
“It is important for the international community to see this is not a paper airplane,” he said.
Bogdan said the plane in question, identified as AF-27, was “burnt pretty well.” But he declined to speculate about whether it could be repaired, or if it would prove to be the first F-35 to be lost, noting that Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney engineers are just now starting the process to see if it can be repaired.
As a result of the grounding, the fleet has not run any installed engines, including for ground tests. In addition, 50 “flight opportunities,” windows in which the plane could be flown on the schedule, have been lost. However, Bogdan said there should be no long-term impact on the schedule from this grounding.
At the same time, the Air Force general defended the program, saying it has been reborn since it was reworked in 2010.
“This program has had a tragic past. We all know that. We know it’s a billion dollars over development cost. We know it’s many years late of the initial baseline in 2001. Get over it,” he said. “It’s not the same program it was in 2001, or 2008. It’s been re-baselined. We have been on this baseline for four years, and we are holding to it.”
As a sign of how things have changed, Bogdan was joined on stage by Lorraine Martin, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for the F-35, and Bennett Crosswell, the head of military engines for Pratt & Whitney. The man who famously used his first public address to lambaste his corporate partners praised the work done by the two companies, joking that he talks with the other executives “almost as much as I talk to my wife.”
Martin was there to announce the program’s new “Blueprint for Affordability,” which sees Lockheed, BAE and Northrop Grumman all chipping in $170 million to find new way to drive down costs.
That pot of money will go toward identifying and changing how certain parts of the plane, such as drilling machines or material, are produced for the plane. When those changes are made, it should lead to savings that can be plowed back into the price negotiations for production lots, providing cash back for taxpayers.
“The US government, when they can have the guarantee they have taken cost out of the aircraft through my investment, will pay that investment back plus a minor return, and I’ll recover my money,” Martin said.
The program could save up to $1.8 billion by 2019 and could shave $10 million off each copy of the jet, eventually helping to reach the goal of an F-35A model costing around $80 million.
Martin declined to say what percentage of that total each company would put in, but said the agreement “evolved in a very collaborative fashion.”
“It’s a fairly simple model. It’s not being done on any programs right now,” Martin said. “This is a landmark approach.”
Although not part of the “blueprint,” Pratt & Whitney is also involved in a similar program, Croswell said. The company will addsupport to its “war on costs” approach, spending $5 million a year for the next three years to find savings it can invest into the program. ■