United Technologies' F-35 Engines Found to Have Recurring Flaws

  • `Suspect hardware' had to be removed from fleet, Pentagon says
  • Pratt & Whitney unit acts to `improve quality surveillance'

United Technologies Corp.’s performance building engines for the F-35 fighter has been beset by “recurring manufacturing quality issues,” according to the Defense Department’s annual report on its costliest weapons program.

The contractor’s Pratt & Whitney military aircraft unit met the goal for delivering engines last year, but quality deficiencies in “turbine blades and electronic control systems resulted in maintenance activity to remove suspect hardware from the operational fleet,” according to the latest Selected Acquisition Report sent to Congress and obtained by Bloomberg News.

Pratt & Whitney “has taken action to improve quality surveillance within their manufacturing processes,” and manufacturing quality experts at the Defense Department have worked to ensure improvements are in place as production of the single-engine aircraft accelerates, according to the report prepared by Pentagon acquisition officials with help from the F-35 program office.

Pratt & Whitney, the sole maker of engines for the F-35, is under pressure to hone its quality processes as the Pentagon plans to spend almost $49 billion buying as many as 2,457 engines for the fighters built by Lockheed Martin Corp. Congress has approved $6.7 billion in engine funding so far, according to the report. The Pentagon has requested money to buy 63 engines next year, increasing to 105 by 2021.

‘Continuous Improvement’

Pratt & Whitney spokesman Matthew Bates said in an e-mail that its quality management “is designed to ensure safe, reliable products” and the company “is investing significant resources in advanced quality inspection techniques and continuous improvement in our supply base, which has lead to year-over-year improvement.”

The reliability of installed engines is exceeding 90 percent “which is well ahead of 2020 requirements,” he said.

Mark Woodbury, a spokesman for the Defense Contract Management Agency, said in an e-mail that Pratt “has quality improvement plans in place and continues to work closely with DCMA to continually improve.”

Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the Pentagon’s F-35 office, said in an e-mail that “while there is still work to do, Pratt has shown that they have made progress reducing the number of quality escapes,” the majority of which come from its subcontractors. The DCMA defines a “quality escape” as a process or product deviation that doesn’t meet contract requirements.

Engine Fire

A quality issue that DellaVedova described as minor was a second-stage engine part called a stator that had to be redesigned after a June 2014 engine fire that led to the temporary grounding of 97 F-35s from test flights. The fire’s aftermath prevented the fighter from making its international debut at the Farnborough Air Show in the U.K.

Last August, according to the contract management agency, Pratt & Whitney had five instances of engine quality deficiencies, including in a low-pressure turbine blade, a high-pressure turbine and a “roll-post actuator.” That was most reported in a month because the “historical average is eight a year for the last four years,” the agency said.

Separately, the agency cited Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc, a subcontractor to Pratt & Whitney, in July “for failure to notify the government of known non-conformances on drive shafts” from one of its suppliers. Rolls-Royce spokesman George McLaren said in an e-mail that “no F-35 production or flight interruptions occurred.”

“We have evaluated procedures and processes and will continue to work closely” with United Technologies to ensure there are no recurrences, he said.

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