About three years before a comparable issue led to an unsettling fighter accident in Fort Worth, Texas, an F-35 engine malfunctioned during a pre-delivery test in March 2020 owing to a vibration issue, Defense News has learned.
According to a statement to Defense News from the F-35 Joint Program Office and Pratt & Whitney, the Raytheon-owned manufacturer of the F135 engines that power the F-35, Pratt “immediately contacted the JPO” once the 2020 vibration issue occurred.
F-35B Accident Was Caused By Engine Vibrations
The JPO and Pratt & Whitney reported that the next day, experts from Pratt & Whitney, the JPO, and the military services that fly the F-35 started a “comprehensive systems engineering investigation” to identify the origin of the issue and “create a route forward.”
The experts said the engines required “extra pre-acceptance procedures” after a four-month examination to test and screen them and, when appropriate, take measures to alleviate any found vibration issues.
On December 15, 2022, a pre-delivery F-35B accident was caused by engine vibrations, or “harmonic resonance,” as the JPO and Pratt & Whitney refers to it. The F-35 was caught on camera spinning and bouncing on the ground before the pilot successfully bailed.
The incident caused the grounding of freshly built F-35s and a halt in the deliveries of new F135 engines, which in turn caused Lockheed Martin’s F-35 deliveries to come to an end. According to an investigation that followed, Pratt & Whitney said in February, the fuel tube of the engine fractured due to engine vibration.
The engine from the December accident had gone through and passed the testing, screening, and mitigation procedures put in place after the engine failure in March 2020, according to the JPO and Pratt & Whitney, but “the event in 2022 introduced new learning that manifested for the first time during flight operations.”
Engine supplies to Lockheed’s F-35 factories were able to begin later that month thanks to a short-term workaround that the military and Pratt & Whitney came up with in February. On March 14, fighter deliveries also resumed.
— Defense News (@defense_news) March 28, 2023
The JPO and Pratt said in a statement on Monday that the repair was only a “interim mitigating” measure that permitted aircraft to fly once more. This summer, “a fully modified component” should be available for all F-35s worldwide in order to “further decrease concerns from harmonic resonance,” according to the JPO and Pratt. While acknowledging other vibration instances, Pratt & Whitney had kept the failure of an engine from the general public.
In a conference call with reporters on February 28, Jen Latka, vice president of F135 programs at Pratt & Whitney, said that while the company had “dealt with resonance before on the engine,” the incident on December 15 involved “new aspects.” Latka offered no details on prior incidents in that call, citing the ongoing investigation, and referred questions to the JPO.
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Regarding financial accountability for the engine vibration issue and the ensuing delivery commotion, the JPO and Pratt & Whitney declined to comment.
The Military stated that it had chosen to keep the F135 engines in the F-35 and update them for more power and cooling to handle extra capabilities expected for the fighter in the coming years as part of this month’s budget rollout. Another engine being developed by General Electric Aviation that would have employed an adaptable engine design was also given consideration by the military but was rejected as being too expensive.