Tuesday, March 5, 2013

F-35 Lightning: Not Airworthy?

As the current most expensive weapons systems procurement program by The Pentagon, is the F-35 Lightning’s jet engine problems affecting its airworthiness status?

By: Ringo Bones 
Back in February 25, 2013, a news story aired about a fleet of 50 F-35 Lightning aircraft were grounded after a routine maintenance discovered cracks in one of the plane’s turbine blades of its Pratt & Whitney F135 jet engine. Given that the F-35 program is currently The Pentagon’s most expensive weapons systems procurement program, will this turbine blade problem eventually affect its airworthiness? 

Given that current Federal laws still prohibit the export of the 120 million US dollar F-22 Raptor – even to America’s allies – Lockheed Martin developed a “budget” version of the Raptor called the F-35 Lightning during the late 1990s and it currently retails around 85 million US dollars each. Currently there are two variants of the F-35 – a conventional takeoff and landing version that needs 10,000-foot runways that Turkey and other American allies had been eyeing to purchase since 2010 and a short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing or STOVL version which the UK had been also eyeing to buy as a replacement for its ageing fleet of Harrier jump jets. 

Ever since the first decade of the 21st Century, Lockheed Martin had been pitching the F-35 Lightning – especially its conventional takeoff and landing version – as the logical replacement of the F-16 Fighting Falcon, although these days, the top brass of the various arms of the US DoD had been eyeing the F-35 as a viable replacement of the A-10 Warthog and the F-18 Hornet. And there are two main capabilities of the F-35 that is absent of the older generation of military aircraft it sets to replace – like stealth and supercruise. 

As with the F-22 Raptor, the F-35 Lightning was designed with stealth capability - that is it is very hard to “see” or detect using conventional air defense radar. And its lightweight mostly composite material airframe allow the F-35 to have supercruise capability – i.e. fly supersonic without turning on its jet engines fuel hungry afterburners and like the F-22, the F-35 only requires the pilot to turn the afterburners only if he or she wishes to fly faster than Mach 1.5. 

Also, the short-takeoff-and-landing or STOVL version of the F-35 Lightning also has the advantage over the Harrier jump-jet it sets to replace due to its use of a lifting fan. The F-35’s lifting fan allow it to perform a very short running 100-yard takeoff and land vertically without the hot-gas ingestion problems that often cause the Harrier to crash during vertical landing maneuvers. 

IN the austere fiscal era of the post credit crunch world were shrinking national defense budgets are the norm - rater than the exception, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning seems to be the best high performance military aircraft out there with a good price-performance ratio, if only the famed aerospace firm can solve its current turbine blade crack problems. If it does, it could probably become a leading figure in the aerospace industry for years to come despite the world’s ever shrinking national defense budgets.     

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