WASHINGTON: For several days, the US Navy and Marine Corps have quietly been grounding and inspecting parts of their F-35 fleets to determine if they are impacted by safety concerns, the result of potentially defective parts on their ejection seats that have already shut down a number of other naval aviation fleets.
It is unclear exactly how much of the F-35B and F-35C fleets are currently down for inspection, or when those inspections will be completed. What is clear, however, is that with the Air Force suspending the majority of its F-35A operations earlier in the day — as first reported by Breaking Defense — the majority of America’s joint strike fighters are currently not flying.
“The Department of the Navy leadership decided to inspect all Navy and Marine Corps F-35s jets in compliance with the 90-day [inspection order],” F-35 JPO deputy spokesman Chief Petty Officer Matthew Olay said in response to questions from Breaking Defense about the status of the Navy and Marine jets. “The Department of the Navy decided to compress the 90-day inspection timeline to having each aircraft inspected prior to its next flight. All inspections are being conducted in an expedited manner with a high priority.”
The 90-day inspection order is a reference to guidance issued by the JPO that all F-35s should be inspected within the next 90 days for the safety issue, which stems from concerns the ejection seats for the jets might work incorrectly. The Navy, it appears, has decided to stop flights in the short term in order to understand how widespread the issue is — although Olay said that the F-35 inspections quietly began earlier in the week.
The issue with the Martin-Baker made ejection seat stems from cartridge actuated devices — explosive cartridges used inside ejection seats to help propel the seat out of an aircraft during an emergency. The Navy disclosed earlier this week that certain production lots of CADs used in Martin-Baker ejection seats have been identified by the company as being defective and needing replacement.
“Since CADs are used in the ejection process, a faulty CAD may not allow all the functions necessary to take place that would allow a complete and safe ejection,” Michael Cisek, a senior associate at the aviation consulting firm AeroDynamic Advisory, told Breaking Defense on Wednesday. “While the aircraft are flyable, I don’t think too many pilots would be willing to fly knowing they may not be able [to] eject.”
The F-35 Joint Program Office had previously issued guidance for how the jets should be inspected for defective cartridges, Olay said. International F-35 customers have also been made aware of CAD issue.
“The collective team is actively engaged in supporting the inspection process, providing supply as needed, and communicating with stakeholders,” he said.
Earlier today, the Air Force’s Air Combat Command (ACC) and Air Education and Training Command (AETC) confirmed that it had temporarily suspended F-35 flight operations on July 29 so that the maintainers could inspect its jets and replace any defective cartridges. ACC and AETC own the lion’s share of the service’s F-35s used for training and operations, but other major commands such as United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) and Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) also field F-35 squadrons.
The Navy’s Naval Surface Warfare Center Indian Head Division (NSWC IHD) supplies CADs and Propellant Actuated Devices for the entirety of the joint force, including the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft.
According to Naval Air Systems Command, the Navy was notified of a potential defect by Martin-Baker and began using “validated radiography procedures” to scan its available CAD inventory and verify that it was “properly manufactured.” NSWC IHD then began shipping cleared replacement parts on July 24 “to several fleet maintenance centers,” the NAVAIR news release stated.
The F-35s are just the latest planes to be grounded because of the safety concerns. Earlier this week, the Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command stated that it had temporarily grounded almost 300 training aircraft due to the CAD-supply issue, and the Navy separately acknowledged that it had grounded an unspecified number of its own trainers and combat aircraft.
Breaking Defense first reported the Navy groundings on Wednesday and Air Force Times first reported the Air Force groundings on Thursday.
The problems have left the US Navy and Air Force scrambling to understand the scope of the problem, which has also impacted the United Kingdom’s Eurofighter Typhoons and Red Arrow demonstration team, according to the Daily Express.
The question now is how long the jets will be down. The Air Force, in its earlier statements, indicated the pause could potentially be lifted by Monday if inspections proceed as planned over the weekend, but because it is unknown how many ejection seats are impacted by the issue it is hard to put a solid timeframe on it.