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F-35 grounding sends pilots to simulators

Feb. 25, 2013 - 04:33PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 25, 2013 - 04:33PM  |  
A 33rd Fighter Wing maintainer watches as the first F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter taxi to its new home at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., in July. The Defense Department grounded all F-35s on Feb. 22.
A 33rd Fighter Wing maintainer watches as the first F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter taxi to its new home at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., in July. The Defense Department grounded all F-35s on Feb. 22. (Samuel King Jr. / Air Force)

The Air Force's first class of six F-35 pilots might have to delay their first flights if the Defense Department doesn't clear the Joint Strike Fighter to resume flying by next week.

The Defense Department on Friday directed the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy to ground all F-35 variants after a crack was found in an engine in an F-35A at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. A preliminary report on the engine malfunction is expected this week, according to a program spokeswoman.

"We expect engineering findings and a follow-on report with better understanding of impact no later than Friday," Kyra Hawn, a spokeswoman with the F-35 joint program office, said in an email.

The grounding means even crews on the ground are barred from conducting engine runs, said Col. Andrew Toth, commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

The six Air Force pilots in training at Eglin are finishing classroom academics and are expected to begin flight training next week, but will be restricted to academics and simulation training if the F-35s are still grounded, Toth said.

"What we will do with them is put them at a pause, continue on with a few of the academics courses and also get them into a simulator to maintain currency," Toth said.

The pilots' training could be extended to make up for any lost time while the F-35s are grounded, he said.

"All the courses are front-loaded in academics, so if we cannot get to the flight line or the flying side, then at that point we pause the training for them until we can start flying again, and pick up where they left off," he said.

Air Force instructor pilots at Eglin were flying about six sorties per day to maintain currency and design a syllabus for the student pilots. The instructor pilots are now using a simulator to keep up their currency, using the system to practice emergency procedures and tactics, he said.

Although the approximately 120 maintainers are restricted from performing engine runs, they are able to work on data updates to the F-35's software and other maintenance that doesn't require running the engine.

"Normally when we are flying, there's an art to schedule flying and maintenance modifications and repairs," said Capt. Joe Perez, the 58th aircraft maintenance unit officer in charge. "What this allows us to do is really jump ahead."

Additional down time also gives crews more time to train with the newest version of the F-35's logistics system, the Automated Logistics Information System 1.0.3, which was delivered last week. Eglin needed the server to receive the next batch of four F-35As, Perez said.

Matthew Bates, a spokesman for engine contractor Pratt & Whitney, said the damaged engine had arrived to a P&W facility on Sunday and that crews are working on inspecting the crack.

The grounding has not delayed the current class of maintainers at Eglin because they are in classroom training, said Senior Master Sergeant Eric Wheeler, the 58th aircraft maintenance unit lead production superintendent.

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