F-35B STOVL Flight Tests Behind Schedule Due to Failing Parts

As frenetic stock-picking, carnival barker Jim Cramer, host of CNBC’s Mad Money, says: listen to company quarterly earnings reports, you can learn a lot. On Lockheed Martin’s 2nd quarter conference call yesterday, CEO Bob Stevens told Wall Street analysts (transcript here) the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program was at a “critical juncture” as it transitions from development into production.

The systems development and demonstration phase is about 80 percent complete, he said. Of the 19 planned test aircraft, 15 have been delivered; only 13 will actually fly, the others are for structural tests. Nine of the “flyers” have so far completed a total of 136 test flights: the F-35A has flown 56 times; the F-35B short-takeoff and landing version has flown 74 times: and the carrier variant F-35C has flown six times.

While the 74 test flights of the F-35B might look impressive, its actually behind schedule; it was supposed to have flown 95 times by now, Stevens said. “Higher than predicted” failure rates of component parts have grounded some F-35B test aircraft. Stevens described the failing parts as sub-components, not major parts such as the engine, which has been performing well.

“The components that are failing are more of the things that would appear either smaller or more ordinary like thermal cooling fans, door actuators, selected valves or switches or components of the power system.”

Yet, testers have had to pull the engines out to access those failed components and the follow-on maintenance has taken far longer than expected, Stevens said. Lockheed and its suppliers are trying to figure out whether the problems lie in botched manufacturing (Friday jobs), whether the design of the parts must be changed or whether the program needs to buy more spares. Stevens said the problem is fixable.

On the production side, Stevens said 31 airplanes are in various stages of assembly. “We continue to see improved cost performance… I think it’s fair to say that the production cost trends overall remain on the favorable side of prior estimates which is where we all want them to be.”

Crackerjack Morgan Stanley aerospace analyst Heidi Wood asked Stevens about F-35 requirements creep, which has been the death knell for many a program. “[T]he hardware is progressively locking into a good configuration,” he said, “and there are no major technical showstoppers to date on the program.”

“I know the numbers of airplanes are big, the size of the program is large, and therefore the cost numbers are significant… But again, I want to disabuse you of any sense you might have that requirements turn or creep are driving either our performance on the airplane or within the program or the overall cost of the program because that’s really not a source of cost concern at present.”

As for international sales, Stevens threw around a bunch of notional figures, muttered something about European commitments among declining defense budgets and said there is “growing” interest in Asia, including Japan, Singapore and South Korea, and the Middle East.

— Greg Grant

  • Great. Let’s sell more Top Secret stealth jets to more Middle Eastern nations.

    What could go wrong?

  • theboogyman

    So you are telling me Die Hard 4 was not accurate to the overall capability’s of this platform?

  • “As for international sales, Stevens threw around a bunch of notional figures, muttered about European commitments among declining defense budgets and said there is “growing” interest in Asia, including Japan, Singapore and North Korea,…”

    Wait, what? NORTH KOREA!!!

    • Greg Grant

      Woops. Thanks for the catch.


  • Bob

    Failed components, and botched manufacturing, “Friday Jobs”, is this what we get when we buy American and buy union made?

  • John

    Big surprise. Boeing was using thrust vectoring because it is more reliable. Basically the F-35 is using a driveshaft / PTO, gearbox, and a ducted fan for the STOL / hover.

    I guess they thought they could engineer out the issues but anybody who has experience breaking PTO powered farm or composting equipment should know better.

    • SMSgt Mac

      And Boeing’s design couldn’t lift off without removing the chin diverter either. Looking in from the outside, going into the competition I thought the Boeing plane would be the winner. But I KNEW that unless there was funny business going on that LM would win the contest when 4 developments (3 in boeing’s control) occurred:
      1. Boeing discovered they would have had to redesign the production version into a more conventional wing/tail planform because the delta wing did not provide sufficient low-speed handling for the carrier variant.
      2. Boeing had to remove the chin diverter to perform the STOVL demonstration
      3. Boeing had serious producability issues with the large one piece wing upper skin.
      4. LM’s innovative lift fan worked even better than hoped.

    • SMSgt Mac

      And as an aside….
      F-35 ‘gearbox’ operation falls into the same category as the ‘nothings’ — as in “nothing runs like a Deere”. Your aversion to what you perceive in the design is understandable though. The success of the lift system, even with the missteps, has been the biggest surprise in the program for me. In the 90’s I worked design issues on power transfer shafts and couplings that linked jet engines to airframe mounted accessory drives. A many-thousand RPM rotating mass linking two devices in a non-rigid assembly was bad enough, but a many-times larger rotating mass cantilevered off the front of your primary means of propulsion and driving the secondary means gave me the heebie jeebies at first. Anyhooo, the article clearly notes that the failures of concern are found in what one might categorize as support or secondary systems

  • JimBo

    The simple truth is that the cream of the crop US engineers did not enter military contract companies for the last 20 years and the decent one’s that did quickly left for greener pastures. When you can make3x salary in a fast paced relevant industry with the potential to make millions and not have your creative tendencies squashed vs. work at a company where the only value-add is senior executive political contacts and where every engineer is more or less the same, you get crappy development.

    Military procurement folks have only themselves to blame. They’ve been out of touch with commercial engineering for 30 years, have no idea when they’re being fed a line of bull by the defense contractors and are under cut by shortsighted regulations.

  • gt350

    When A machine is asked to do many jobs. it becomes a master of none, like people. Why cant we make as fast as a SR-71–It does all this other stuff!?

    • blight

      speed is not the end all in air to air. MIG 25s have been shot down by much slower aircraft, for example.

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