Sunday, September 18, 2016

Guess who's grounded again? The answer will (not) surprise you!


[Cue sad trombone...]
Well...  This is embarrassing.

Mere weeks after declaring the F-35A's IOC (initial operating capability) the USAF has grounded fifteen of them (two belonging to the RNoAF).

The grounding was ordered when depot maintenance discovered coolant lines with decomposing insulation.

"[I]t was possible for this crumbling insulation to become lodged in the siphon lines connecting wing and fuselage fuel tanks...  This could result in excessive negative pressures in the fuel tanks during flying operations or excessive positive pressures during air or ground refueling. In either case, the under- or over-pressure could cause structural damage to the fuel tanks." 
-US Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek


At least nothing caught on fire this time!
Unlike the engine fire that grounded the entire JSF fleet two years ago, this issue seems to be more of a quality control issue rather than a design flaw.  The problem seems to be constrained to a single subcontractor.  The effected parts are unique to the F-35A CTOL version.  

While only 15 aircraft have been grounded, another 42 F-35's currently being assembled share the same faulty coolant lines.  

“the extent and nature of the repairs needed are not known at this point,”  said in an e-mail statement. “However, it is not unreasonable to assume the repairs will require
opening the fuselage and/or wings to access the fuel tanks to replace components or make repairs, which would be very intrusive and could require extensive downtime.”
-spokesman Army Major Roger Cabiness

Meanwhile...  At the Joint Program Office...
The biggest issue here is not the faulty part itself, but the fact that the JSF program lends itself to such a thing.

The Pentagon has been very keen on ramping up production on an aircraft that is still years away from true operating capability.  This rush to get units out the door before all the kinks have been worked out (i.e: concurrency) has led to a revolving door where fighters are built only to have to be taken apart again to incorporate new fixes.  The crumbling insulation itself was found during these "depot modifications".

Worse still, the business model of spreading out JSF contractors to as many districts as possible (to make it politically viable) has obviously had an effect on quality control.  This issue will likely worsen as F-35 subcontractors become more international.  A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and the JSF logistics chain has a lot of links built in a lot of different places.  Issues with a Turkish supplier could have ramifications for planes destined for Australia. 

It has been a matter of fact since the industrial age that manufacturing defects happen.  In order to minimize this, common sense indicates that product testing and a reliable supply chain are fixed in place BEFORE full production occurs.  The JSF's industrial model does pretty much the exact opposite by attempting to crank out as many units as possible first, while treating testing and logistics chains like an afterthought.  

Even if the Canadian government ultimately chooses the F-35, its hesitation to do so has already paid off.  Otherwise, like Norway, we would be the not-so-proud owner of a couple of hangar queens.  

If Canada insists on buying the wrong fighter, there is no point in rushing it.  




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