Another short-lived season of “cautionary suspension” has been lifted for F-35 Lightning II flying operations at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., and the 33rd Fighter Wing resumed sortie generation March 1.
An engine blade crack discovered at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Feb. 19 caused the entire joint strike fighter fleet to be grounded. Before that, the F-35B was “grounded” due to a fuel leak at Eglin.
This new way of business, integrating the Department of Defense’s fifth generation aircraft to its future units while its capabilities are still being tested by flight engineers and pilots, is called “concurrency.”
“As with any new weapons system, we expect to learn things about the aircraft and the system over time and we are doing just that,” said Col. Andrew Toth, 33rd Fighter Wing commander. “The great part about that is we have a fully integrated team from the Joint Program Office all the way down to the 33 FW, making appropriate decisions to ensure we can continue safe and effective flying operations.”
When the F-35 Joint Program Office issued a week-long cautionary suspension of flight operations due to the engine blade crack, they released a statement explaining it was for the safety of aircraft operators throughout the program.
“It is too early to know the fleet-wide 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,” according to the official statement . “The F-35 Joint Program Office is working closely with Pratt & Whitney and Lockheed Martin at all F-35 locations to ensure the integrity of the engine and to return the fleet safely to flight as soon as possible.”
Comprehensive tests concluded prolonged exposure to high levels of heat and other operational stressors on the specific engine with the cracked blade were contributing factors.
“The engine in question is part of the F-35 test aircraft fleet, and had been operated at extreme parameters in its mission to expand the F-35 flight envelope,” according to an F-35 JPO statement after tests at the Pratt & Whitney facility in Middletown, Conn., and investigation results were complete.
“No additional cracks or signs of similar engine stress were found during inspections of the remaining F-35 inventory. No engine redesign is required as a result of this event. Within the current DoD inventory, 17 F-35s are employed in test and development at Patuxent River Naval Air Station and Edwards Air Force Base; the remaining aircraft are assigned to Eglin Air Force Base and Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, and comprise the initial F-35 training fleet.”
Returning to flight operations quickly, effectively and safely are the goals of the military team and its contracted partners.
When the F-35B flying operations were also put on “cautionary suspension” for almost a month after a fueldraulic hose failure here Jan. 18., Marines halted flying their newest stealth fighter until cleared to return to flight upon re-installation of compliant hoses by air worthiness authorities at Naval Air Systems Command and the program office.
Delays or temporary time outs in revving up the engines in any of the 22 aircraft here don’t stop the integrated team at the 33rd FW from continuing to build up the training program of the future.
“For both student and qualified pilots, they will continue to maintain currency in F-35 simulators,” said Toth. “Due to the fidelity of the simulators, approximately 50 percent of the core syllabus flights for the F-35 training program are accomplished virtually. Any additional time in the simulator gives pilots an opportunity to practice more emergency procedures and improve their capabilities.”
Lockheed Martin full mission simulators are the proven method of training for the wing’s 12 F-35 pilots who were able to climb into the single-seat fighter for their first sortie. They began their certification to fly virtually in the classrooms and then by ramping up hours in the 33rd FWís 260,000 state-of-the-art Academic Training Center.
The ATC also includes electronic classrooms for maintainers, full scale mock-up cockpits and weapons bays to train with. On the flight line, maintainers can continue to hone their skills on the fifth generation aircraft.
“One benefit of the grounding was our ability to conduct both deferred and routine maintenance activity,” the wing commander said. “There was no shortage of things for our maintainers to accomplish.”
Eglin is the heart of F-35 training worldwide for the Air Force, Marine, Navy and international partner operators and maintainers of the Lightning II.
“Temporary set-backs are a routine part of developing any new technology,” said Toth. “The wing will continue with safe and effective operations. The F-35 training environment at Eglin is a first, and it prepares our students for what they will face on the 21st century battlefield – working in joint and coalition environments. The F-35, most importantly, assures the future of U.S. and coalition air power.”