KESTEREN, The Netherlands --- The first Joint Strike Fighter aircraft remains grounded since its 19th test flight in early May 2007 was aborted after a technical mishap, and Lockheed Martin has since then missed several deadlines for returning the aircraft to flight status.
In parallel, other technical problems and design flaws have come to light that require substantial redesign and modification work, raising serious doubts about the credibility of the in-service dates that have been provided to program partners and prospective customers.
Although some of these flaws have been known and identified for several months, neither Lockheed Martin, its industrial partners nor participating governments have given any public indication that the program might miss deadlines or exceed its cost objectives. In fact, there has been no public acknowledgment to date of any major problems or difficulties in the program.
Indeed, no problem is mentioned in any of the many press releases issued by Lockheed Martin since the May 3 aborted flight. To all intents and purposes, the program is officially progressing with no major hitches.
This article looks at the nature of the technical issues that have come to light since May.
JSF Grounded Since Aborted May 3 Flight
During the 19th test flight on May 3, 2007 of the prototype of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), a serious electrical malfunction occurred in the control of the plane. After an emergency landing the malfunction was identified as a crucial problem requiring redesign of critical electronic components.
First, prime contractor Lockheed Martin and program officials announced there was a minor problem; later, they avoided any publicity about the problems. But serious delays, and further increases in the cost of the J.S.F. seem certain. In the Netherlands, Parliament started debating the program [last] week.
On December 15, 2006 the experienced Lockheed Martin chief test pilot Jon Beesley took off for the first time in the first JSF (Joint Strike Fighter) aircraft, also known as F-35 Lighting II.
In the coming years, over 2,500 Joint Strike Fighters are scheduled to be delivered to replace the F-16 and Harrier fighters in the US Air Force, US Navy and US Marine Corps, as well as the air forces of Australia and of several European countries. In most cases, rival contenders are Eurofighter, Rafale ad Gripen. However, the new fighter must be available in 2014, when the F-16 will reach the end of its operational life. Any further delay will require life extension modifications of the F-16, high maintenance costs and reduced operational availability.
After a series of seven quite successful flights, the test flight program stopped in February 2007, fix some minor problems in the JSF flight control software. It is not unusual in this stage of a test flight program.
In March the JSF returned to flight status and took off for the first supersonic flight. By the end of April, the JSF prototype AA-1 was flying several times a week.
But on May 3, with the second test pilot Jeff Knowles at the controls, a serious malfunction hit the JSF. At 38,000 feet, and at a speed of some 800 km/h, the plane executed a planned, 360-degree roll but experienced power loss in the electrical system about halfway through the manoeuvre.
In an emergency procedure power is restored and Knowles regained control of the aircraft. The pilot cuts short this 19th test flight and an emergency landing was made at Fort Worth.
Due to control problems with right wing flaperons, the JSF touched down at the exceptionally high speed of 220 knots (350 km/hr), and the undercarriage, brakes and tyres are damaged. Several eyewitnesses take pictures of the emergency landing.
Lockheed Martin technicians identified a component in the 270-power supply as the cause of the incident. The JSF's ''revolutionary'' new technology includes new electro-hydrostatic actuators for the flight control system, which replace more conventional hydraulic systems. After some weeks of evaluation, it appears that there are serious design flaws in this new electrical system. Expensive redesign will be necessary.
“No serious problem”
Normally whenever the JSF takes an itty-bitty baby step, the manufacturer reports it to the media for PR purposes. First engine run? Reported. Roll-out? Reported. First flight? Reported. First Wheel-up flight? Reported. But “first emergency landing”? Not reported.
Only after two weeks, on May 17, 2007 chief test pilot Beesley comments in a short press bulletin: “It was not a serious problem and the pilot never lost control of the airplane”. Company officials say they don't expect any delays in the flight-test program as a result of the incident, and repairs will be combined with some regular, planned maintenance. Plans call for the fighter to return to flight status in June.
However, on July 10, 2007 Flight International announces disturbing news. Now Lockheed Martin official Bobby Williams explains that there is a serious design problem in the aircraft's electrical system. The fault was caused by a shortcoming in the 270 volt system, when a lead inside a box touched the lid. A complete review of close-tolerance spacing and all electrical boxes is necessary. But, don't worry, Bobby Williams tells Flight International: “We will be back into flight in August”.
Another surprising fact is discovered via a military employee from one of the European air forces, who works within the JSF project team, and is a liaison officer. He tells that flying in 2012 with the JSF may be safe and the JSF can be used as a plane to fly around. But several software modules for weapons system integration (which are quite important for a fighter) will not be ready.
Ground attack capability is made a priority, so primarily the JSF is a ‘bombtruck’. Air superiority capabilities will be restricted, and completed only after 2015. This means that full multi-role capability is possible at earliest in 2016, on condition that no further problems occur in development and testing of the (weapon) systems software.
So, will there be JSFs on European airbases that will not have full air superiority capability until 2016? This is a worrying thought, in the light of the intensifying scrambling from UK and Norway since Russian Tupolev Bears have been entering air space near Norway.
Manufacturer wants to alter JSF testing to save money
In an article published on Aug. 31, 2007, Bloomberg News reveals that Lockheed Martin is exceeding the budget on the first phase of the Joint Strike Fighter program. The manufacturer warns that the financial reserves will be spent by the end of 2008, unless cuts are made.
Lockheed is seeking US Defense Department approval to reduce the number of test aircraft and personnel, plus hundreds of test flights, to save money and replenish the program’s reserve fund. It wants to build two prototypes less and skip 800 of the 5.000 planned test flights. This, after only 18 successful, and one almost fatal, test flights in six months.
Officially, Lockheed Martin now says the reason for the rising deficit is: “the costs spent on redesigning a critical electronic part that failed during a May test flight”. Redesign of something as crucial as control systems in this stage of such a complex project has to alert anywhere and anytime all involved partners and governments.
The overall program is now projected to cost US$ 299 billion, 28 percent more than its estimate of US$ 233 billion when it started in October 2001. The number of JSF fighters to be produced, originally estimated at over 3,500 will not be higher than 2,300. Some US sources even speak about an estimated 1,700.
Australia has decided to postpone the purchase of the JSF and decided to buy the more traditional, but advanced and reliable Super Hornet F18, to avoid any risks in their air defence. Some NATO countries, amongst them Norway and Denmark are considering other options. One European candidate is the advanced, but expensive to use, twin-engined Eurofighter, already in use with the UK, Spain, Germany and Italy. Another European candidate is the new Saab Super Gripen, an advanced version of the proven Saab Gripen concept, already operational in Sweden and NATO countries Czechia and Hungary.
Both planes have electronics as advanced as those of the JSF, and are multirole, but without the development risks of the JSF. Saab Gripen offers a price per flight hour less than 60% of those of both JSF and Eurofighter.
These are not the only problems that will cause delays to the program. Because the JSF naval variant F-35C's power generator was mistakenly designed to only 65% of the required electric output, it is necessary to redesign the gearbox of the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine of the air force's variant.
In an ominous contract announced by the US Department of Defense in August 2007, it appears that this engine update will not be ready for use before the end of 2009.
While it seemed probable that the JSF would return to flight status in October, a new problem arose during a test run of the F135 engine, when part of the engine was blown up by a third stage low pressure turbine blade cracking.
On November 14, 2007 an eyewitness made pictures of the delivery of a new F135 engine. But a date for test flight number 20 (of the scheduled 5,000 test flights) is still unknown.
Questions in Dutch parliament
Each fact that indicates the development of a potential new problem is kept under tight wraps by the manufacturer and all participating industrial and governmental partners.
As long predicted by several critical politicians and governmental agencies, like the US Government Accountability Office, the JSF is fast turning into a debacle. Up to now the manufacturer succeeded in keeping politicians, the public and (most of) the press unaware of the very serious fact that since May 3, 2007 the flight test program has been stopped completely.
This main threat to the Joint Strike Fighter program, in terms of growing costs and risks for planned delivery had to be made public for long already.
In the Dutch parliament the Secretary of Defence was questioned on Monday 19 November, after this article about the JSF delays and rising costs were published in several Dutch newspapers on Sunday, May 18.
References for this publication
(1) Flight International, May 2007 by Craig Hoyle. Title: Lockheed Martin's Joint Strike Fighter recovers from in-flight power failure
(2) Aerospace Daily & Defense Report, May 17, 2007 by David A. Fulghum. Title: Power Failure Cuts F-35 Test Flight Short
(3) Reports of eye witnesses May 3, 2007 Fort Worth on aviation spotting forums, see :
www.fencecheck.com/forums/index.php/topic,689.msg140204.html#msg140204 and www.f-16.net/index.php?name=PNphpBB2&file=viewtopic&t=8137 (4) The near-accident has been caused by the new electro-hydrostatic actuators (EHAs). Remarkably, in April 2007, the chief test pilot Jon Beesley told Code One Magazin that the EHAs were production versions, and that testing could be restricted to the AA-1.
(4)Text in Code One Magazine:
“The electro-hydrostatic actuators, or EHAs, are another excellent example of risk reduction we're accomplishing on AA-1. This is the first real electric jet. The flight control actuators, while they have internal closed-loop hydraulic systems, are controlled and driven by electricity--not hydraulics. The F-35 is the only military aircraft flying with such a system. We proved that the approach works on six flights of the AFTI F-16 during the concept demonstration phase of the JSF program. We already have many more flights on EHAs on this test program. Because we are flying production versions of the EHAs on AA-1, we won't have to prove the EHA design on subsequent F-35s” (Author: Eric Hehs, editor of Code One).
(5) Flight International, July 2007 by Graham Warwick. Title: JSF to fly following electrical system review
(6) Star Telegram (local) Fort Worth, August 31, 2007 by Tony Capaccio Bloomberg News. Title: Lockheed Martin wants to alter JSF testing to save money
(7) Aerospace Daily & Defense Report, Aug. 24, 2007 by Amy Butler. Title: JSF Stakeholders Plan Collective International Buy
(8) Sydney Morning Herald, Aug 22, 2007. Released by AAP Title: Joint-Strike-Fighter-a-tough-task. Contents: JSF challenges similar to competing in an ironman triathlon www.smh.com.au/news/National/Joint-Strike-Fighter-a-tough-task/2007/08/22/1187462346021.html
(9) Flight International, Aug 24, 2007 by Stephen Trimble Title: Lockheed tackles JSF power deficit
(10) About problems with gearbox of Pratt & Whitney F135 engine (power supply F-35C version) this contract text can be found on the Pentagon website (Contract for August 17, 2007:
“United Technologies Corp., Pratt and Whitney, Military Engines, East Hartford, Conn., is being awarded a $71,503,988 modification to a previously awarded cost-plus-award-fee contract (N00019-02-C-3003) for the procurement of F-135 gearbox redesign and re-qualification, and delivery of nine redesigned gearboxes. The gearboxes will be incorporated into F-135 flight test engines being delivered to Lockheed Martin for the F-35 flight test aircraft. Work will be performed in East Hartford, Conn., and is expected to be completed in December 2009. Contract funds will not expire at the end of the current fiscal year. The Naval Air Systems Command, Patuxent River, Md. is the contracting activity.”
(11) Star Telegram (local) Fort Worth, October 8, 2007, by Bob Cox Title: Lockheed waits to put F-35 to the test again
(12) Witness report of someone ''near'' Lockheed Martin, Fort Worth: ''Latest word is that they are awaiting a proof test of the F135 engine because the powerplant experienced a third stage low pressure turbine blade cracking on the test stand in October. They will proof test the FTE-3 engine and if it passes -- which they expect it to -- flight testing will resume before thanks giving using this engine. The F135 engine runs the highest turbine inlet temperature of any jet engine in the history of aviation -- a whopping 3600 degrees where most fighter engines operate in the 2600 to 2800 degrees range.
The flight control issues have long since been addressed in September; thats not what's holding things up. The AA-1 has out and about been doing ground runs using FTE-1 since October.''
Confirmed with a picture on November 14, 2007 from Keith Robinson, local aviation spotter in Fort Worth
(13) Flight International, Vol 172 Nr. 5105 Sep 24, 2007 by Graham Warwick. Title: JSF flight test changes planned
(14) FlightGlobal.com, Sep 11, 2007. Pratt & Whitney checks F35 JSF engine after test anomaly
(15) Flight International, Nov 16,. 2007 by Graham Warwick Title: Lockheed Martin F35 JSF facing funding and ramp-up challenges
(16) US Government Accountability Office; March 15, 2007 Ref: GAO-07-370:
“Accurately predicting JSF costs and schedule and ensuring sufficient funding will likely be key challenges facing the program in the future. JSF continues to pursue a risky acquisition strategy that concurrently develops and produces aircraft. While some concurrency may be beneficial to efficiently transition from development to production, the degree of overlap is significant on this program. Any changes in design and manufacturing that require modifications to delivered aircraft or to tooling and manufacturing processes would result in increased costs and delays in getting capabilities to the warfighter. Low-rate initial production will begin this year with almost the entire 7-year flight test program remaining to confirm the aircraft design,” and:
“Total JSF program acquisition costs (through 2027) have increased by $31.6 billion and now DOD will pay 12 percent more per aircraft than expected in 2004. The program has also experienced delays in several key events, including the start of the flight test program, delivery of the first production representative development aircraft, and testing of critical missions systems.... Despite these delays, the program still plans to complete development in 2013, compressing the amount of time available for flight testing and development activities”.