* Turbine blade sent to Pratt facility for tests
* Second grounding of F-35 in two months
By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON, Feb 22 The Pentagon on Friday
suspended the flights of all 51 F-35 fighter planes after a
routine inspection revealed a crack on a turbine blade in the
jet engine of an F-35 test aircraft in California.
It was the second grounding of the warplane in two months
and marked another setback for the $396 billion F-35 Joint
Strike Fighter program, the Pentagon's biggest weapons program.
The program has already been restructured three times in recent
years and may face further cutbacks if Congress does not avert
budget reductions due to take effect on March 1.
The F-35 program office said it was too early to know if
this was a fleet-wide issue, but it was suspending all flights
until an investigation was completed. A total of 51 F-35 jets
were affected, including 17 that are being used for testing and
34 in use for training in Florida and Arizona.
It said it was working closely with Pratt & Whitney, the
United Technologies Corp unit that builds the engine,
and Lockheed Martin Corp, the prime contractor for the
radar-evading warplane, to ensure the integrity of the engine
and return the F-35 fleet to flight as soon as possible.
The program is trying to shore up orders from the eight
foreign countries that are helping to fund development of the
"Given the political scrutiny they're under and given the
concerns about cost and performance, this is not welcome news,"
said aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia with Virginia-based
Teal Group. Although it was not clear how serious the issue was,
he said another long grounding could set back the program's
ability to complete an aggressive flight test schedule this
The Pentagon's F-35 program office began notifying the
chiefs of the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps late on
Thursday about the engine issue and decision to ground the
planes, said Kyra Hawn, a spokeswoman for the program office.
Major General Christopher Bodgan, who heads the F-35
program, made the decision to ground the F-35 on Thursday before
traveling to an air show in Australia, according to a source
familiar with the issue.
Australia is expected to make a decision in the next three
to six weeks about whether to scale back its order of 100 F-35s
and buy more Boeing Co F/A-18 fighters instead.
She said that a routine inspection at Edwards Air Force Base
in California on Feb. 19 revealed a crack on a low pressure
turbine blade that is part of the F-35's F135 engine. The blade
was on an F-35 A-model, or Air Force variant, which takes off
and lands from conventional runways.
Pratt spokesman Matthew said the inspection showed "an
indication of a crack" on the third stage low pressure turbine
airfoil. He said the company was working closely with the
Pentagon, Lockheed and the military services to get the planes
Engineering teams are removing the turbine blade from the
plane and plan to ship it to Pratt's engine facility in
Middletown, Connecticut, for more thorough evaluation and root
cause analysis, according to the Pentagon and Pratt.
Hawn said an initial analysis was expected next week.
The grounding comes on the heels of a nearly month-long
grounding of the Marine Corps variant of the new warplane after
a manufacturing defect caused a fuel line to detach just before
a training flight in Florida.
The Marine Corps variant of the F-35, which takes off from
shorter runways and lands like a helicopter, was grounded for
nearly a month after a fuel line detached just before a training
flight at Eglin Air Force Base in January.
That issue was later found to be caused by a manufacturing
defect. The Pentagon and the U.S. Navy lifted flight
restrictions on the B-model of the plane on Feb.
Pilots flew a dozen F-35 flights at the Florida air base on
Wednesday after the blade crack was discovered in California,
and the Marine Corps marked its first operational flight of the
F-35 B-model at Yuma on Thursday.