The US Air Force (USAF) F-35 Demo Team, assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base (AFB), Utah, has been forced to reduce appearances this year due to a growing shortage of Pratt & Whitney F135 engines because of longer repair periods, some due to previously unreported shortcomings with engine blade coatings.
As reported by Bloomberg, the Air Combat Command (ACC) that controls the team cut the number of 2021 shows by eight performances (about one-third) towards the end of January to ensure the flying doesn’t aggravate a worsening service-wide shortage of engines. According to a defense official in fact, the longer times in the engine repair depot are putting a pinch on Air Force jet engines across the service.
The engines on the F-35As have been running “hot,” or close to the limits of their design, and that heat has caused premature cracks, or delamination, of turbine blade coatings. That’s forced the engines to be removed or repaired earlier than anticipated, aggravating an already backlogged depot system. The cracks in the coating are not a flight safety issue, but they do reduce an engine’s useful life, said a defense official.
The ACC said in a statement that the USAF is working “diligently” with the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) and Raytheon’s Pratt & Whitney engine unit “to resolve supply and maintenance issues” with the engine.
The previously undisclosed engine issue is just the latest complication with the $398 billion F-35 program that the Pentagon must contend with. President Joe Biden’s defense secretary, retired General Lloyd Austin, is likely to recuse himself from any F-35 decisions because he served on Raytheon’s board until mid-January.
Laura Seal, F-35 JPO spokeswoman said that the office is “working closely” with the Pratt & Whitney unit to “resolve supply and maintenance issues.”
She explained that the F-35 JPO early last year began to see a confluence of two troubling trends — a decrease in the number of F-35 engines returning to units in a timely manner after repair and an increase in “unscheduled engine repair requirements” from “premature distress of rotor blade coatings in a small number of engines,” causing delaminations. The blades had to be replaced.
Seal added that the F-35 JPO and Pratt “have identified and are implementing aggressive solutions to both of these issues.” They are “expanding F-35 engine repair depot capacity” and “concurrently implementing engineering solutions that will keep engines deployed longer before needing maintenance or replacement.”
Kevin Anthony, Pratt & Whitney spokesman, said in a statement that “collectively, we are pursuing multiple initiatives aimed at accelerating capacity growth and maturing the global” maintenance, repair and overhaul network to exceed program requirements. The company also recognizes the challenges that the engine program’s “sustainment structure is presenting as the fleet matures, and continues to collaborate with” the Pentagon on a solution, he added.
With more than 40,000 lbs. of thrust, the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine is the most powerful fighter engine ever produced and it is the heartbeat of the F-35. Evolved from the proven F119 engine that powers the F-22 Raptor, the F135 powers all three variants of the F-35 Lightning II.
Photo credit: Senior Airman Alexander Cook / U.S. Air Force
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