The F-35 fighter jets’ flawed ejection seats, which Air Force officials said in May had been fixed, still pose a “serious” risk that will probably injure or kill nearly two dozen pilots, according to an internal Air Force safety report that service officials withheld from the press.
The F-35 Joint Program Office — which runs the $406.5 billion initiative, the most expensive weapons program in history — has declined to try to save those lives by conducting less than a year’s worth of additional testing that would cost a relatively paltry few million dollars, the report shows.
Mannequin tests in 2015 had demonstrated that some F-35 pilots were at risk of fatal neck injuries if they had to eject in the original seats under some emergency conditions. Air Force officials said in a news conference in May that changes made to the seat since then, including a new head support, had essentially solved the problem.
“I’m confident our pilots are no longer concerned with the F-35 ejection system,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus, a top official overseeing the program, told reporters.
But two weeks before the press conference, the internal Air Force report from the service’s top aviation safety experts, the Technical Airworthiness Authority, had told a different story.
Twenty-two pilots will be injured or killed in the coming decades, unless the upgraded ejection seats undergo additional testing to show they work in “off-nominal” cases — in other words, when the plane is out of control, not just in optimal flight conditions, said the May 1 report on “F-35-A Residual Risk Acceptance,” obtained by CQ Roll Call.
Such cases would be rare — perhaps 2 percent of ejections, by one estimate. But the results could be “catastrophic” for the pilots, the report said.
For “no less than $1 million” worth of tests taking “nine to 12 months,” the result could be “no additional losses” of pilots, the report said. But the program office “non-concurs” with the recommended testing, the report said.
Air Force public affairs officials at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where the safety report was produced, declined to provide a copy of the report and said a Freedom of Information Act request would have to be filed to obtain it. (end of excerpt)
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