More than two decades ago, the U.S. military recognized the need to update its air fleet. Military leaders, experts and pilots had the notion that the aircraft of the future should complement one another in air combat to continue successfully guarding and defending our nation’s borders and protecting the citizens. The F-35 program is the military’s attempt to achieve this notion. The vision was to develop a program that would effectively link the F-35 aircraft fleets in each of the military’s branches through a virtual network and incorporate capabilities to meet unique needs of the various branches.
The goal becomes even more ambitious when service members are forced to rely on poorly designed and unsafe equipment. As we discussed in a recent issue of this Report, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program is the latest demonstration that striving to meet aircraft capabilities often takes priority over pilot safety.
Despite 20 years of development and the projected $1.5 trillion program price tag, the F-35 has faced a number of challenges, according to Mark Fredenburg. Fredenburg is a mechanical engineer and outlines these problems in a National Review column. He explains that the relentless failure to meet deadlines, incredible budget overages and, more importantly, structural problems continue putting service members at risk.
It was no surprise when the latest structural problems surfaced this January. A 2015 deficiency report by the Pentagon included information dating back to 2014. It noted, “…the extreme movements in the cockpit during launch risked pilot health.” According to the Business Insider, citing Inside Defense, a nose gear issue with the Navy’s F-35C causes excessive shaking during launches from aircraft carriers. As a result, pilots suffer severe pain during and after such a launch.
The excessive shaking also disorients pilots at a moment when they should be focused on critical flight data and completing the necessary tasks to successfully launch from a moving platform. In an effort to adapt and overcome – something all service members learn early in their training – some pilots lock down their harnesses. While this helps reduce the shaking, it also intensifies an already dangerous situation because when pilots lock down their harnesses, it makes ejecting during an emergency more difficult.
Engineers claim that a potential structural solution exists and that it would reduce the risk of harm to F-35C pilots. However, it will require revamping the aircraft’s design and likely require modifications to the entire U.S. fleet of air carriers, and officials have not clearly defined when or if this fix will be implemented. If it is applied, it could take years to fully implement. Moreover, it addresses only one of the F-35’s deficiencies placing pilots at risk.
Another troublesome function is vertical liftoff, which came at the behest of the Marine Corps. Design changes required to fulfill this directive significantly increased the aircraft’s weight. Consequently, the Pentagon approved more waivers than normal for a combat aircraft so that engineers could strip the aircraft of safety equipment in order to get it off the ground.
The waivers lowered performance standards and affected the plane’s safety, reliability and durability. Removing the safety features to lighten the F-35’s load contributed to the nose gear problem, and the more obvious problem of scrapping the safeguards engineers installed to protect pilots from fiery crashes. Now, the F-35 no longer has the fuel tank’s ballistic liner, feuldraulic fuses, flammable coolant shut-off valve nor the dry bay fire extinguisher. According to Fredenburg, “[t]he unprecedented and pervasive presence of flammable hydraulic fluid, flammable coolants, and fuel throughout the plane makes the F-35 a flying tinderbox.”
Several recent mishaps illustrate a legitimate concern. Engine fires in 2014, as described recently in the Report, led to the grounding of the F-35 on two separate occasions. Last September, a pilot was forced to escape an F-35 that caught fire before he was even airborne. DefenseTech reported that the fire started when fuel collected in the tailpipe and ignited. One month later, another F-35 aircraft erupted in flames, forcing its pilot into an emergency landing. DefenseNews reported that an initial investigation revealed the fire started when a bracket and electrical wiring it was securing came loose during the training mission. The loose wiring, which sits next to hydraulic lines and other flammable parts, was free to move and chafe – eventually sparking the fire.
In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek about deadly aviation mishaps last year, retired Marine pilot James Skelton said, “We’re Marines. We know we put our lives at risk. That’s the job. But you don’t want to do it unnecessarily.”
If you need more information on this subject contact Mike Andrews, a lawyer in our firm’s Personal Injury & Products Liability Section, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Mike.Andrews@beasleyallen.com. Mike handles aviation litigation for the firm.
Sources: National Review, Business Insider, DefenseTech, DefenseNews, and Bloomberg Businessweek