A busy morning in the defense aviation world. First, it was reported by Aviation Week and confirmed by Lockheed Martin that a crack turned up in one of the major bulkhead pieces on an F-35 ground test plane that was undergoing fatigue testing in Fort Worth.
And the Air Force is looking for an F-22 Raptor in Alaska that failed to return to base Tuesday evening. The Dew Line blog has what little of that story we know right a this moment.
A Lockheed Martin F-22 lost contact with US Air Force air traffic control at 7:40pm (11:40pm EST) yesterday during a routine mission from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska. A search is underway. As of about 8am EST, the USAF still classified the aircraft and the pilot as overdue.
The USAF has lost two F-22s in accidents since December 20, 2004. Aircraft 014 was lost on that day after maintenance procedures triggered a glitch in the flight control system. Aircraft 008 crashed on March 25, 2009, after Lockheed Martin test pilot David Cooley briefly lost control for 4sec during a 9g, split-S maneuver.
The fatigue crack turned up in the aluminum-alloy bulkhead after just 1,500 hours of testing. The F-35 airframe is designed to last at least 8,000 hours and the intent of the testing was to push it to twice that figure.
How serious a problem the bulkhead crack is remains to be seen. It came in an F-35B model, in which the titanium bulkheads were swapped for aluminum to save weight. If it turns out to be a manufacturing error, that's one set of problems. If it's a design error, that's another.
There are already four F-35B flight test planes flying at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, with another built and ready to follow fairly soon. Based on a previously scheduled walking tour of the Lockheed Martin assembly line this morning, at least five more B-models are in some stages of the final assembly process and another four or five have to fairly far along.
The timing of the discovery isn't good. The Pentagon for weeks has been trying to decide how to proceed with the F-35 program which continues to fall farther behind schedule and over budget, in large part due to problems with the F-35B. It has been widely reported that the Navy made have made another attempt to convince Defense Secretary Gates to drop the Marines short-takeoff-vertical-landing model.
A Defense Acquisition Board will be held Monday to advise and rule on the DoD's plans for continuing with the F-35 program.