The F-35A Joint Strike Fighter will participate in fewer air shows this year as military leaders deal with an engine shortage for the fifth-generation stealth jet.
Bloomberg News reported this week that there is a growing shortage of F135 engines, which are manufactured by Pratt & Whitney, now owned by Raytheon Technologies Corp.
Air Combat Command, or ACC, which oversees fighter aircraft units, has scaled back its 2021 air show requirements for the F-35 to ensure availability of jets for deployments and training. It has cut about eight performances, according to Bloomberg.
"The leadership team here is focused on a comprehensive recovery plan to mitigate the readiness impact to our F-35 operational units," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Friday.
Since August 2020, Pentagon senior leadership has been "actively engaged" on F-35 engine availability issues, he said during a press briefing. "They don't deem the engine issues right now to be a safety of flight issue, but maintenance inspections are resulting in unscheduled engine removal."
The F-35 demonstration team typically performs at about 20 shows each year, though the 2020 season was also scaled back due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Problems with existing engines are exacerbating the availability issue. According to Bloomberg, a surface coating on the turbine blades overheats, causing the blades to crack. A defense official told the news outlet that the engines require maintenance earlier than planned, taking them out of service.
Specifically, the issue affects the HPT blade coating, a spokesman for the manufacturer said Friday.
"Pratt & Whitney incorporated a hardware modification in spring of 2020 in both production and sustainment to address the HPT blade removals," the spokesperson said in a statement.
"We continue to work closely with the F-35 Joint Program Office, the services, and the Oklahoma City-Air Logistics Complex (OC-ALC) to increase enterprise capacity across the F135 maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrade network." The spokesperson added that the company is pursuing "multiple initiatives aimed at accelerating capacity growth."
The F-35 demo team flies operational aircraft, meaning there are no jets specifically designated for air shows.
The team is based at the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. The 388th has an inventory of 78 single-engine F-35s. The demo team takes two of those aircraft -- one as primary, the other as a spare -- to each show, according to the Air Force.
A single F-35 typically performs at air shows alongside the Heritage Flight Foundation. The foundation is a contractor with ACC and performs across the U.S. and overseas, flying old warbirds such as the P-51 Mustang. Only four aircraft -- the A-10 Thunderbolt II, F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-22 Raptor and F-35 -- are certified to fly alongside the planes from a bygone era.
"We in the 388th Fighter Wing, like the rest of the F-35A community, have been working through some challenging engine sustainment issues," a wing spokesperson said in a statement Friday.
"Our demo team aircraft are not unique or dedicated aircraft; we can and do fly any of the wing's 78 operational aircraft."
While the unit is meeting its operational and deployment requirements, ACC has asked the demonstration team to scale back some 2021 appearances until "the sustainment challenges can be further addressed," the 388th spokesperson said.
"Air Combat Command is working hard on our behalf with the Air Force and the F-35 Joint Program Office to develop a solution for engine sustainment," the wing said, adding it is ready to conduct its primary combat mission.
The F-35 Joint Program Office, the Defense Department's lead agency overseeing its most expensive program, praised the demo team on the same day the reduced show schedule was announced.
"Who is ready to see the @F35demoteam soar through the skies in 2021?" the JPO tweeted Friday. "While we wait for their 2021 air show season to start, ride along in an #F35 with the #F35A Demo Team's pilot and commander Capt. Kristin "BEO" Wolfe!" the account posted, alongside a video of Wolfe, the first female demo team lead, piloting the jet. It was unclear when the video was filmed..
A request for more information from JPO was not immediately answered.
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.