FARNBOROUGH: F-35 deployment hinges on safety board decision

Farnborough
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A US military safety investigation board will have the final say on whether to approve the Lockheed Martin F-35 for a return to flight as soon as this week, as inspection work continues on the Pratt & Whitney engine which caused a fire in late June.

Speaking on the opening day of the Farnborough air show, F-35 programme executive officer Lt Col Christopher Bogdan said the possibility of the short take-off and vertical landing B variant appearing at Farnborough remains, although an approval must happen soon.

“I don’t think it would be worthwhile to come here when the show is over,” Bogdan says, adding that four US Marine Corps aircraft remain “perched” to make the deployment from NAS Patuxent River in Maryland. “A day or two” is needed between an approval to fly being granted and aircraft arriving in the UK, he adds.

If the STOVL aircraft does reach Farnborough, he notes: “we are intending to do the [display] profile that the USMC and the UK have been training for four months, that showcases some of the extraordinary capabilities of the B-model.”

Following the tear down of the conventional take-off and landing F-35A involved in the incident and its F135 engine, Department of Defense procurement chief Frank Kendall has said that excessive rubbing of fan blades appears to have been the cause of the fire, and that issue is not considered to be “endemic”. The DoD has no interest in reviewing a decision to cancel the alternative General Electric/Rolls-Royce F136 engine, he says.

No decision has yet been made on whether the damaged aircraft will be repaired, says Bogdan. An expected production ramp up on the F-35 programme – which will see the number of aircraft completed per year rise from around 40 to 100 within the next several years – is “the real impetus for driving the airplane’s cost down” towards a target of $80 million by 2019, he notes. Lockheed and its industry partners BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman are also investing $170 million in cost-reduction measures under a “Blueprint for affordability” initiative to run until 2016.