Power failure

We knew that this contract award (see second item) last Friday looked like bad news for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), but it turned out to be even worse than we thought.

To cut to the chase, the contract was awarded because the F-35C’s power generator was mistakenly designed to offer only two-thirds of the maximum electric output that the carrier-based jet needs. That means if the pilot needs to move all the control surfaces at the same time in a hard maneuver, he’d blow out the jet’s electrical system.

In turn, that meant Lockheed Martin needed to get its subcontractor to redesign the power generator to provide 33% more electricity.

If that was the end of the story, then the design flaw would likely still be a tightly-held program secret.

The reason: the generator is made by Hamilton Sundstrand, a Lockheed subcontractor. Lockheed can privately contract with its subcontractor to fix a part, and nobody in the public ever has to be the wiser.

Fortunately, such a huge increase in power output meant that it wasn’t just the generator that needed redesigning.

Pratt & Whitney happens to build the gearbox that transfers the power coming off the F135 engine into energy that can be used by the generator. Luckily, the US government contracts separately with Pratt for engine components on the JSF program, so it must publicly award a contract to Pratt to redesign the part.

That’s where I come in. After such a mysteriously ominous contract award is announced, it’s my job to call the companies to ask for an explanation. In my experience, Lockheed has always moved quickly to answer my questions, and — thankfully — they did so again this time, which allowed us to publish this news story in next week’s magazine.

So — thanks to Pratt’s involvement in the program — we all know about this serious design problem. But doesn’t it make you wonder about all the things we don’t know?

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