The F-35 Lightning II investigation into the engine fire that occurred in one plane on June 23, 2014 has reached some preliminary conclusions that this was an isolated incident.
...Program Executive Officer Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan told reporters the piece in question is the third-stage integrally bladed rotor. All 98 in-service F135 engines have been checked, and no others have the same problem, he said. Some “rubbing” between the spinning blades and the casing lining is acceptable, Bogdan explained, but in this case the fit was too tight, causing “micro-cracking” in the solid-piece blades and creating excessive heat build-up. This caused the engine to “come apart,” he said. “We have … a body of evidence now that we think is ample … to fully understand what happened,” he asserted.More below the Orange Omnilepticon.
The F-35 program has been the target of much criticism over costs, performance issues, and the very rationale for its existence almost from day one. (Recent diary on this topic here.) While some of the criticism is justified, it should also be considered that the "narrative effect" is in operation. That is, once a story line gets accepted as the takeaway on a given subject, it's difficult to change it. (It seems to have become a cottage industry.) In the case of the F-35, the bad news is taken as a given, while good news gets little attention.
Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan said the program had already lowered the projected cost to fly, operate and repair the jets by 9 percent, and hoped to eventually achieve a 30 percent reduction from an initial estimate that put the "sustainment" cost at $1.11 trillion over the next five decades.In this incident, it appears the problem is isolated. Was it a quality control issue with the particular engine component that failed? Was it a maintenance issue? That is what the investigation will be attempting to resolve. As the preliminary report notes, none of the other 98 F-35s have been found to have that problem with their engines. Given the relative newness of the F-35 and its ongoing development, the grounding of the fleet for three weeks was not an unreasonable response. Some things only become apparent as experience is gained - and that simply takes time.
Kendall, Bogdan and other U.S. officials spoke with reporters after a two-day meeting of top officials with the key companies and countries involved in the $398.6 billion program, the Pentagon's costliest weapons program.
Kendall said the Pentagon was also starting to look at a possible multi-year procurement agreement, given the large numbers of jets to be bought by the U.S. military and other countries, which could help further lower the acquisition cost.
Caution is still being exercised. The F-35 fleet can fly - but with restrictions for now.
...within a restricted envelope, and only after rigorous engine inspections, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Tuesday. Specifically, the F-35s are limited to speed of under 0.9 Mach; 18 degrees angle of attack, between -1G to +3 G maneuvers, and 1/2 stick deflection for rolls. Also, the front engine fans are to be inspected every three hours of flying time—a requirement that precluded the six-hour trip to Britain for their Farnborough Air Show debut. Kirby said Air Force and Navy airworthiness authorities cleared flights to resume with the above-stated caveats, with full clearance pending a final “root cause” for the engine fire, which Pentagon acquisition czar Frank Kendall on Monday said was due to blade “rubbing” against the engine case.Further data suggesting that the problem is not a systemic flaw, according to the same article is that
...The F-35 has amassed about 26,000 hours on the engines with no similar failure, he [General John Amos] added.It was hoped the F-35 would be appearing at the Farnborough International Air Show, a premiere event for the aerospace industry. Its absence is a great disappointment.
...Analysts said the timing of the problems, just as Lockheed Martin was hoping to demonstrate the plane to prospective export buyers at the Farnborough show, could not have been worse.For Those on a Budget...
“It is a huge embarrassment,” said Howard Wheeldon, an independent investment strategist and a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society in London. “There’s no getting away from that.”
The Pentagon has committed to buying more than 2,400 of the single-engine supersonic planes, which are built to be almost undetectable by radar. A dozen other American allies — including Australia, Canada, Israel and Japan — have signaled plans to buy as many as 700 in total. But budget constraints have already led some countries, including Britain, Italy and the Netherlands, to consider reducing their original purchase plans.
The BBC also notes the disappointment over the absence of the F-35 - but does bring up the fighter you've probably never heard of: The Scorpion.
The Scorpion costs about $20m (£12m) a throw, is built from off-the-shelf components, and went from drawing board to first flight in 23 months.The Scorpion is a gamble, in that the prototype has been built completely on speculation. There's no military funding behind it, and no customers as of yet - but it might be the right aircraft at the right time, for the roles it is intended to fill.
The F-35, costing three times as much and conceived in the early 1990s, is still in the US while engineers figure out what caused a fire that has grounded the entire fleet.
OK, making comparisons is unfair; the Scorpion and F-35 are lightyears apart in specification and functionality. But it is still slightly ironic.
Whit Peters, part of the company behind the Scorpion, was involved in the F-35 when he was Secretary of the US Air Force in the 1990s.
A few years ago, he and some colleagues had an idea for a new, light tactical fighter for general security and reconnaissance, positioned between existing cheaper, but ageing aircraft, and full-on strike fighters.
"We were pretty sure that there was a gap in the market," Mr Peters says. "It was about building something with enough tactical capacity to satisfy customers, but that also had low running costs. We are in an era when defence departments are facing budget cuts."
The two-seat, twin-engine Scorpion, made of advanced composites used in civil aircraft, will carry infrared air-to-air missiles and wing-mounted gun pods.Meanwhile…
Border control, reconnaissance, maintaining no-fly zones: these are the main functions. Indeed, that is the role of most fighter aircraft missions these days.
Mr Anderson says the Scorpion's big selling point is its low operating costs - $3,000 an hour.
The US is currently using its F-16 super-jet on low-end missions in Afghanistan. "There's no air-to-air threat there," says Mr Anderson.
"They are spending $18,000 an hour running the F-16. You're burning the life of the aircraft on missions it was not designed for."
There's a certain school of thought that regards manned aircraft for combat purposes, whether F-35 or Scorpion, to be a dead end, with drones the logical solution. Well, drones have their bad days too, as this pdf report on a recent drone loss details. To summarize the report, a coolant leak caused engine overheating and a loss of thrust; the onboard control system misdiagnosed the problem and its automated responses prevented the mission crew from taking corrective actions. They had to guide it to a forced 'landing' in the Mediterranean; loss of the RPA and mission equipment is estimated at $4.6 million, according to the July 10 report.
This isn't to ignore the potential of remotely piloted aircraft, but it wouldn't be the first time the promise of new technology has blinded people to the hard realities of putting them into play in the real world.
One of the greatest single disasters in the history of Britain's post-war industry and technology was brought about by a Conservative defence minister, Duncan Sandys, in 1957. This has generally been referred to since as the 1957 White Paper. The thinking behind this White paper was that all manned aircraft would have been replaced by guided missiles by no later than the 1970s, and thus that all the promising projects in development could be cancelled - as most were.This is one reason the British are looking to buy F-35s from America today.
The F-35 saga has a ways to run. Even one of the plane's harshest critics has had to acknowledge some painful facts.
Like it or not, the stealthy F-35 is the future of U.S. air power. There are few alternatives. Lockheed Martin’s engineers have done millions of man-hours of work on the design since development began in the 1990s. Starting work on a new plane now would force the Defense Department to wait a decade or more, during which other countries might pull ahead in jet design. Russia, China and Japan are all working on new stealth fighter models.While a low sodium diet might normally be regarded as a health measure, take the worries about the potential Russian, Chinese, and Japanese competition with a hefty grain of salt. Ditto for the hopes and fears about the F-35. There have been any number of aircraft that have never lived up to the initial hype, just as there have been others with troubled beginnings they overcame. It ain't over till its over.