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Pentagon: 'Growing Evidence' F-35 Incident Not Systemic

Jul. 14, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By AARON MEHTA   |   Comments
A backdrop is installed ahead of a press briefing on the Lockheed Martin F-35 at the Farnborough International Airshow on July 14. (CARL COURT / AFP/Getty Images)
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Farnborough International Airshow

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FARNBOROUGH, ENGLAND — Pentagon officials are increasingly confident that a fire that heavily damaged an F-35A joint strike fighter on June 23 was the result of an isolated issue and not a fleet-wide design flaw that will require redesign or replacement of parts.

However, the F-35 fleet remains grounded and the window to appear at the Farnborough International Airshow grows slimmer each day.

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“There is a growing body of evidence that this is not a systemic, major design problem, that the problem is a manageable problem,” Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, told reporters on Monday. “We have not found a similar problem on any of the other engines that are in service, so that’s encouraging.

“At this stage in the game, I do not see this as any kind of major setback.”

The cause of the fire, which claimed the fighter designated AF-27 at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, is a part of the engine known as the integrally bladed rotor (IBR). There are multiple IBRs in each F135 engine, designed by Pratt & Whitney, but this particular one was located in the fan section of the engine.

As described by Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the head of the F-35 Joint Program Office, the engine blade is designed to rub against part of the engine during normal operation. For whatever reason, this particular IBR encountered “more severe” rubbing than planned, leading to higher temperatures, cracks — and eventually a major fire.

“All 98 of the other engines did not indicate the same phenomenon that we saw on the one engine that failed,” Bogdan said. “So we understand what happened. We are now trying to figure out why it happened.

This is the second IBR-related engine issue to crop up in the past eight months. A test engine was heavily damaged in December when an IBR blew after 2,200 hours of testing, a significant amount, the equivalent of nine years of service.

However, the current incident is not related to any past IBR issue, according to the panel.

“No, this is not related to any incident in the past,” Paul Adam, president of Pratt & Whitney, said. “This is a unique failure mode we had.”

Kendall expressed confidence in Pratt & Whitney and indicated a reintroduction of a second engine for competitive purposes was not in the cards.

“Overall we’re confident in the design. We’re still in development, we still have work to do, [largely] on the margins, but overall we’re confident,” he said. “We’re not interested in this point in going back several years and opening up to another competitor.”

The officials acknowledged what Kendall called the “unfortunate timing” of the event coinciding with Farnborough and last week’s Royal International Air Tattoo, which were supposed to serve as an international debut for the fighter.

“We’re all disappointed,” Bogdan said. “It would have been a wonderful thing to have those airplanes here so the rest of the world can see it’s not a paper airplane and that it’s really a technological marvel.”

Hope still exists, however. Bogdan indicated that they would go ahead with the trip even if it could only appear for the public day Sunday. That cutoff point when the plane would no longer be able to make it would likely be sometime on Friday.

Lessons Learned

The incident has also led Pentagon officials to formalize a plan for how to share information among the eight international partners and two foreign military sales customers.

Information on the fire, in particular the haphazard way news about whether the fleet was grounded or not was released, led to the appearance that the fire had thrown the lines of communication into disarray.

Sean Stackley, the Navy’s lead acquisitions official, acknowledged a breakdown in the normal lines of communications.

“We work hard, in my experience with the F-35, to keep our partners informed of everything that is happening in the program,” Stackley said. “What happened in this case was because safety authorities were involved, a different group of people were involved, so we didn’t have as good communications as we normally do.

“That is a lesson learned so we’re going to correct that going forward to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

The incident has also led Pentagon officials to formalize a plan for how to share information among the eight international partners and two foreign military sales customers.

“We are going to formalize the process for mishap reporting and for safety investigations across all the service partners and FMS customers so that everybody will understand that,” Bogdan said. “As soon as we can get past this engine issue we will work to bring everybody together and formalize that.”

William LaPlante, the US Air Force acquisition head, said that process will include explaining to partners and customers how US safety investigations work.

The panel was a rare conglomeration of top officials for the F-35 program. In addition to Kendall, Bogdan, LaPlante and Stackley, Adam of Pratt & Whitney and Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson helped represent the industry side of things.

Normally, the companies are represented by their individual F-35 program managers; the appearance of the top executives speaks volumes about how important the program is to the individual companies. ■


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