F-35 JSF Hit by Serious Design Problems
by Johan Boeder in The Netherlands. Earlier versions of this article have been published in the Dutch press and Defense-Aerospace. DID has worked with the author to create an edited, updated version with full documentation of sources.
On May 3, 2007, during the 19th test flight of the prototype of the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), a serious electrical malfunction occurred in the control of the plane. After an emergency landing the malfunction could be identified as a crucial problem, and it became clear that redesign of critical electronic components was necessary. Producer Lockheed Martin and program officials first announced there was a minor problem, and later on they avoided any further publicity about the problems.
The delay has become serious, however, and rising costs for the JSF program seem to be certain. In Holland, Parliament started a discussion again last week. Understanding the background behind these delays, and the pressures on European governments, is important to any realistic assessment of the F-35’s European strategy – and of the procurement plans in many European defense ministries…
The Fateful Incident
On December 15, 2006 the experienced Lockheed Martin chief test pilot Jon Beesley takes off for the first time with the JSF (Joint Strike Fighter), also known as F-35 Lighting II. The coming years, some 3000 Joint Strike Fighters are scheduled to be delivered to replace F-16 and Harrier fighters in the USA and in the air forces ad navies of several European countries. In most cases, replacement contenders are some combination of the Eurofighter, Rafale, Gripen and JSF. In many cases, the new fighters must also be available by 2014-2018 ultimately, when early-model F-16s bought in Europe will reach their end-of-life stage. Any further delay brings high maintenance costs, and too low operational availability.
After a series of 7 quite successful flights, the test flight program stops in February 2007 to fix some minor problems in the JSF flight control software. This is not unusual in the early stages of a test flight program. In March 2007, the JSF returns to flight status and takes off for the first supersonic flight. At the end of April the JSF prototype AA-1 takes off several times a week. But then, destiny strikes. On May 3, 2007 with the second test pilot Jeff Knowles at the stick, a serious malfunction hits the JSF. At 38,000 feet (12 km) level flight and at a speed of some 800 km/hour, 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 Jeff Knowles regains control of the plane. The pilot cuts short this 19th test flight and makes an emergency landing in Fort Worth, TX. Due to control problems with right wing flaperons, the JSF has to make that landing at an exceptional high speed of 220 knots (350 km/hr). The plane’s undercarriage, brakes and tires are damaged. The plane is stopped, surrounded by emergency vehicles, and towed away, but several eyewitnesses take pictures of the emergency landing.
Lockheed Martin technicians identify a component in the 270-power supply as the culprit in the near-accident. The JSF’s new technology includes new electro-hydrostatic actuators (EHAs) for the flight control system, replacing more conventional hydraulic systems. In April 2007, chief test pilot Jon Beesley told Code One Magazine that the EHAs were production versions, and that testing could be restricted to the AA-1:
“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.”
After several weeks of evaluations, the engineers learn that there are serious design problems 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. Fully two weeks later, 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 2007.
However, on July 10, 2007 Flight International announces disturbing news. Lockheed Martin official Bobby Williams now 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. He adds that: “We will be back into flight in August.”
Another fact was discovered via a military employee of one of the European air forces, who works within the JSF project team, and is a liaison person for several air forces. He says that flying in 2012 with the JSF may be safe and the JSF can be used as a plane to fly around. But, the several software modules for weapons system integration will not be ready. Ground attack capability is the priority, so early-build F-35s will primarily be “bomb trucks” until the additional software modules can be tested and loaded. Air superiority capabilities will be restricted, and completed only after 2015. This means that full multi-role capability is possible by 2016 at the earliest, if and only if no major problems occur in development and testing of the weapon systems software.
So, will there be JSFs on European airbases without complete air superiority capability in 2016? A sobering thought in the light of the intensifying scrambling from UK and Norway since Russian TU-95 Bears have began entering air space near Norway again in 2006.
Nor are these the only challenging problems facing the F-35 program. The F-35C naval variant’s Hamilton Sundstrand power generator was mistakenly designed to only 65% of the required electric output. To accommodate the required increase, it will also be necessary to redesign the gearbox for the standard Pratt & Whitney F135 engine, which will be fitted into the conventional F-35A version as well as the naval F-35C. The contract announced by the US Department of Defense in August 2007 says that this engine update won’t be ready for use until the end of 2009, which is almost the beginning of low-rate initial production.
Lockheed Martin can issue a subcontract to Hamilton Sundstrand to fix the F135’s power generator without any publicity, and they have done so. As of December 1, 2007, neither Lockheed Martin’s nor Hamilton Sundstrand’s 2007 news archives show any trace of this award. Pratt & Whitney has a separate government contract for the F135 engine, however, and the award’s size forces the Pentagon to announce the award under its rules for publicizing contracts.
Although it seemed probable that last October the JSF would fly again, a new problem arose. During a test run of the F135 engine, part of the engine was blown up by overheating. On November 14, 2007, an eyewitness took pictures of the transportation of a new F135 engine. The date for test flight number 20 (of the scheduled 5,000 test flights) is still unknown.
Manufacturer wants to alter JSF testing to save money
In an article that Bloomberg News publishes on August 31, 2007, it is announced that Lockheed Martin is exceeding the budget on the first phase of the Joint Strike Fighter program. The manufacturer warns that the reserves will be spent by the end of 2008, unless cuts are made. Lockheed Martin is seeking US Defense Department approval to lessen the number of test aircraft and personal plus hundreds of test flights to save money, and replenish a reserve fund.
It wants to build 2 fewer prototypes, and skip 800 of the 5,000 planned test flights. This after only 18 successful and 1 almost fatal testflight in half a year’s time.
Officialy, Lockheed Martin 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 all involved partners and governments.
Questions in Dutch Parliament
This main threat to the Joint Strike Fighter program, in terms of growing costs and risks for planned delivery should have been made public long ago. In the Dutch parliament the Secretary of Defence was questioned on Monday 19 November when the facts about the JSF delay and rising costs were published in several Dutch newspapers on Sunday, November 18, 2007.
The Situation in Europe
The overall Joint Strike Fighter program is now projected to cost $299 billion, 28% more than its estimate of $233 billion when it started in October 2001. The number of F-25 fighters to be produced, originally estimated at over 3,500, will not be higher than 2,300 in the initial production orders from all partners. Some US sources even speak about an estimated 1,700.
Australia has decided to buy the more traditional, but advanced and reliable F/A-18F Block II Super Hornet, in order to avoid any risks to their air defense stemming from F-35 schedule slips. Some NATO countries, including JSF partner nations Norway and Denmark, are considering other options entirely, instead of the JSF. One European candidate is the advanced but expensive twin-engined Eurofighter, already in service with the UK, Spain, Germany, Italy, and Austria. Another European candidate is the new Saab JAS-39 Gripen Demo, an advanced version of the proven Saab Gripen already operational with Sweden with NATO members the Czech Republic and Hungary.
While the F-35’s embedded sensor arrays will continue to offer superior situational awareness, both of its biggest European alternatives are expected to have similar advanced AESA radars and electronics. They would also enter service with multi-role capabilities, without the development risks of the JSF. Saab’s Gripen also claims a price per flight hour less than 60% of the JSF or Eurofighter.
The pattern to date is a disturbing one, where a string of difficulties that threaten to have serious impacts on the program’s schedule and costs are minimized by the manufacturer and its industrial and governmental partners, or simply not announced. Note that until the recent set of questions in Parliament, 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.
Without sufficient transparency, it is difficult for the public to evaluate the fighter procurement choices that will have to be made in the coming years by governments all over Europe – and even more difficult to simply trust assertions that all will be well.
As is our practice, DID has contacted both the Joint Strike Fighter program office and Lockheed Martin, inviting them to offer substantive responses that directly address the issues raised in this article. If these are forthcoming, they will also receive Guest Article status, and a link will be included here.
Earlier Article Versions
Earlier version of this article has been published in full the Dutch press (Nieuwsbank), as well as De Defensa [French], Defense-Aerospace, and the Institution of Engineering and Technology (UK, similar to IEEE). Shorter reports based on it have been featured by the Dutch Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau and its subscribing Dutch media, and have been the subject of coverage in Spain and France.
This version features some corrections and edits, as well as full documentation of sources via hyperlinked references.
- DID FOCUS Article – F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: Events & Contracts 2007 (updated) Includes detailed program and platform background.
- DID (Nov 16/06) – Dutch Sign F-35 Production MoU, But Political Challenges Remain
- DID (Oct 5/06) – Dutch Close to Approving F-35 Production Participation
- DID (Oct 24/05) – Supersonic SIGINT: Will F-35, F-22 Also Play EW Role? Discusses the F-35 and F-22’s new approach of widely embedded sensors and electronics, and their implications.
- DID Spotlight – Australia Buying 24 Super Hornets As Interim Gap-Filler to JSF
Author and Sources
Johan Boeder lives in Kesteren, The Netherlands. He started publishing about aviation in 1977 as a freelance author at the Dutch newspaper Reformatorisch Dagblad. Later he was involved in publications and reports about the fatal crash of a Belgian C-130 Hercules at Eindhoven airport (1996). His reports in June 1997 helped support the Dutch Hercules Ramp Society in triggering the Dutch parliament to give renewed attention to what caused this crash. Publications about this subject in which he was involved were published in Telegraaf (13 februari 1998) and Reformatorisch Dagblad (21 juni 1997). His professional career is in technical software development CEO/owner of the Dutch software company BEVER Software (see “personeel”, button “directie”), with a specialization in vehicle/ machine construction, development and maintenance.
He can be contacted via jobo at beveraut.nl – though readers who wish to call attention to perceived errors in this article should also Cc: to editorial@, here at defenseindustrydaily.com.
- Reformatorisch Dagblad (Nov 21/07) – JSF niet vertraagd. An extended version appears in the in the printed edition.
- Luchtvaartnieuws (Nov 20/07) – Defensie: ontwikkeling Joint Strike Fighter wel volgens plan. Also appeared at Dutch Air Force Association’s Onze Luchtmacht. Many Dutch outlets ran similar stories, as the Dutch military released their own a press bulletin on the evening of Nov 20/07. Summary: there had been an emergency landing with damage caused by 270V system, and engine troubles in August, with a long delay of test flights, but they were “minor” and ground testing has continued.
- JSF Nieuws (Nov 20/07) – “JSF Niet Vertraagd.” Note: not an official JSF program site.
- Nieuwsbank (Nov 19/07) – J.S.F. vleugellam door ontwerpfout
- Luchtvaartnieuws (Nov 18/07) – Prototype Joint Strike Fighter al maanden stilzwijgend aan de grond
- Nieuws.nl (Nov 18/07) – GroenLinks eist duidelijkheid over JSF
- Flight International (Nov 16/07) – Lockheed Martin F35 JSF facing funding and ramp-up challenges. Corrected version.
- Fort Worth Star Telegram, via Air-Attack (Oct 8/07) – Lockheed waits to put F-35 to the test again (partial story, full Fort Worth Star Telegram link is dead)
- Flight International (Sept 17/07) – Lockheed F-35 JSF flight test changes planned
- Flight International (Sept 11/07) – Pratt & Whitney checks F35 JSF engine after test anomaly
- F-16.NET, Eric Palmer article (Sept 6/07) – Does Congress have a grasp on the reality of the JSF program?
- Bloomberg News, via Air-Attack (Aug 31/07) – Lockheed Martin wants to alter JSF testing to save money (partial story, full FWST link is dead)
- AW Aerospace Daily & Defense Report (Aug. 24/07) – JSF Stakeholders Plan Collective International Buy
- Flight International (Aug 24/07) – Lockheed tackles JSF power deficit
- Flight International, The DEW Line (Aug 24/07) – Power Failure
- Sydney Morning Herald (Aug 22/07) – Joint Strike Fighter, ‘a tough task’
- US DoD DefenseLINK (Aug 17/07) – Publication No. 1015-07 has to announce this contract, since the Hamilton Sundstrand generator feeds into P&W’s gearbox, and P&W has its own government contract that must be used:
bq. “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.”
- Flight International (July 10/07) – JSF to fly following electrical system review
- Flight International (June 6/07) – P&W JSF engine damaged in test
- Lockheed Martin Code One magazine (Q2 2007) – F-35 Lightning II Flight Tests: Chief Test Pilot Recounts Early Flights
- AW Aerospace Daily & Defense Report (May 17/07) – Power Failure Cuts F-35 Test Flight Short
- Flight International (May 15/07) – JSF recovers from in-flight power loss
- Flight International (May 11/07) – Lockheed Martin’s Joint Strike Fighter recovers from in-flight power failure
- Fort Worth aviation spotting forums (May 3/07) – Reports of eye witnesses. See Fencecheck and F-16.NET.
- Witness report of someone “near” Lockheed Martin, Fort Worth. Confirmed with a picture on November 14, 2007 from Keith Robinson, local aviation spotter in Fort Worth:
bq. “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; that’s not what’s holding things up. The AA-1 has out and about been doing ground runs using FTE-1 since October.”
- US Government Accountability Office (#GAO-07-360, March 15/07) Joint Strike Fighter: Progress Made and Challenges Remain. Excerpts:
“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…
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.”
- US Government Accountability Office (#GAO-06-487T, March 16/06) – Tactical Aircraft: Recapitalization Goals Are Not Supported by Knowledge-Based F-22A and JSF Business Cases
This publication remains the exclusive intellectual property of Johan Boeder.