F-35 Maintainers

Deploying pilots with the 388th and 419th fighter wings prepare for launch at Hill Air Force Base on May 20, 2020.

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — The Air Force’s F-35 aerial demonstration team, headquartered at Hill Air Force Base, has been forced to revise its 2021 show schedule due to a growing shortage of engines.

Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported that the team cut eight shows this year, or about a third of its total performance schedule, in order to “ensure the flying doesn’t aggravate a worsening service-wide shortage of Raytheon Technologies Corp. engines.”

According to the Bloomberg story, which cited unnamed defense officials, the engines on Air Force model F-35s have been nearing the “limits of their design,” with overheating causing premature cracks. The engines are being “removed or repaired earlier than anticipated, aggravating an already backlogged depot system.”

F-35 program officials have told Department of Defense leaders that in a worst-case scenario, up to 20% of Air Force F-35s could lack engines by 2025, according to the Bloomberg story.

The Hill F-35 demonstration team had previously announced 24 shows that were to take place this year, but as of Thursday, the group had scrubbed its schedule from its website, replaced by a message that says, “Our 2021 performance schedule is currently being updated ... a new schedule will be published here as soon as it is finalized.”

The Standard-Examiner confirmed the reported engine shortage with Hill’s 388th Fighter Wing. The active-duty fighter wing — along with its reserve counterpart, the 419th Fighter Wing — owns and operates 78 F-35s, functioning as the Air Force’s lone combat-capable F-35 outfit. In a statement issued by the wing, the engine troubles have not interfered with real-world combat operations. Since the latter half of 2019, the wing has completed three Middle East combat deployments.

“We in the 388th Fighter Wing, like the rest of the F-35A community, have been working through some challenging engine sustainment issues,” the statement says. “However, the hard work of our maintainers has enabled us to safely and consistently meet our operational requirements, including three recent combat deployments. We are confident in the F-35’s ability to execute its primary combat mission.”

The Hill statement also said the Air Combat Command, which is the primary provider of combat forces for the Air Force, is working with the F-35 Joint Program Office to develop a solution for engine sustainment. The statement says the demonstration team’s show schedule will be scaled back “until the sustainment challenges can be further addressed.”

Stationed at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona until 2020 when it moved to Hill, the Air Force’s F-35 demo team was also forced to cancel a number of shows last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The group’s approximately 18-minute performance flights are designed to highlight the F-35’s numerous warfighting capabilities, including speed, agility and high-g turning.

The latest engine issue is not the first time the F-35 program has been troubled by parts problems.

On June 23, 2014, about a year before the jets began arriving at Hill, an F-35A that was scheduled to conduct a routine training mission experienced an engine failure and subsequent fire on takeoff. The jet was assigned to the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, but was the same “A” variant that is flown at Hill. Although the pilot stopped the takeoff procedure and was able to exit the aircraft safely, the jet’s engine burst into flames and flying the jet Air Force-wide was temporarily restricted.

In August 2016, maintenance crews at Hill discovered “peeling and crumbling” in the avionic cooling line insulation inside one of the jet’s fuel tanks. An investigation was launched immediately after the discovery, and eight other aircraft where found to have the same issue.

The Air Force eventually grounded all operational F-35 Lightning IIs that were built with the same cooling lines.

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