Cracked Engine Blade Grounds Entire Fleet of F-35 Fighters

Posted February 22, 2013 at 1:45pm

Defense Department officials notified Congress Friday that ground and flight operations for the entire F-35 fighter jet fleet, comprising all three variants of the plane, are being halted indefinitely.

The decision was made after a crack was discovered on an engine blade in one of the test planes.

“Until the nature of this crack has been determined, the integrity of the F-35 fleet cannot be assured and the potential exists for catastrophic failure,” said Vice Adm. David Dunaway, chief of Naval Air Systems Command, in a memo Thursday to affected Defense Department offices.

The cracked part is an “engine stage 3 Low-Pressure Turbine (LPT) blade” and it was discovered Feb. 19 during a routine inspection of an Air Force variant of the jet at Edwards Air Force Base in California, officials said.

“It is too early to know the fleetwide impact of this finding, however as a precautionary measure, all F-35 flight operations have been suspended until the investigation is complete and the cause of the blade crack is fully understood,” the F-35 joint program office said in a statement.

Congress will keep a close eye on how this plays out. This latest manifestation of the F-35’s developmental difficulties will not help the program’s cause as the Pentagon’s budget tightens in the years ahead. At an acquisition cost of roughly $400 billion, the program is the fiscal equivalent of a zeppelin as a target for budget cutters.

Secondly, a failure of this kind in one of the engine variants is precisely the kind of risk that some lawmakers sought to avoid by funding for many years a second type of engine for the plane. The second-engine program was terminated in 2011 amid a widespread perception that it was a waste of money. It’s not inconceivable that this latest incident could rekindle the alternative engine debate.

United Technologies’ Pratt & Whitney is building the engines for the F-35. General Electric and Rolls-Royce worked on a second engine even after Congress rejected it and finally stopped that work in December of 2011.

A version of this story appeared in Executive Briefing: Defense