The Air Force has grounded F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter jets today for an undetermined period of time over concerns that faulty explosive cartridges in ejection seats could hinder the ability of pilots to safely exit in an emergency, the Air Force said.
Most of the Air Combat Command's (ACC) 113 F-35s have been grounded, Alexi Worley, an ACC spokeswoman, said. "Other Air Force F-35 units are following Air Combat Command's lead," Capt. Annabel G. Monroe, an Air Force spokeswoman, told The War Zone.
"Following initial inspections of a small number of F-35 aircraft and discussions with our logistics professionals and Air Combat Command, the [Air Education & Training Command AETC] commander joined the ACC Commander in directing an operational pause beginning Friday, July 29 to allow our logistics team to further analyze the issue and expedite the inspection process," Capt. Lauren M. Woods said. "Based on the results of these inspections and in conjunction with ACC, the lead command for F-35, AETC will make a decision regarding continued operations."
The Air Force has a total of 349 F-35s. It is unclear how many have been affected.
It is a widespread issue that has grounded hundreds of other Air Force, Navy, and Marine aircraft. British and German aircraft, and possibly more.
The issues experienced with the U.S. aircraft are with cartridge actuated devices (CAD) in Martin-Baker ejection seats. The CADs “initiate a series of automatic functions when aircrew pull the ejection handle to safely egress the aircraft and deploy the aircrews’ parachute,” according to the Navy, which provides CADs and Propellant Actuated Devices (PADs) for all services at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Indian Head Division (NSWC IHD).
“The CAD is inspected regularly, and replaced if needed, during period maintenance of the aircraft but can be affected by environmental and operational conditions,” the Navy said in a July 26 media release about the problems.
The CAD problems with ACC’s F-35s were discovered after the Air Force conducted what it calls a “Time Compliance Technical Directive” on July 19 to “inspect all of the cartridges on the ejection seats in 90 days. Out of an abundance of caution, ACC units will execute a stand-down on July 29 to expedite the inspection process. Based on data gathered from those inspections, ACC will make a determination to resume operations.”
Worley could not immediately say whether this affects F-35s deployed overseas as well or the exact number grounded.
Hundreds of other aircraft across the Air Force, Navy and Marines have also been grounded as a result of the concerns.
“At this time, we suspect that approximately 203 T-38 and 76 T-6 aircraft may be affected by this issue,” the Air Force said in a statement. “This number represents approximately 40% of our T-38 fleet and 15% of our T-6 fleet and includes aircraft at each of our [Undergraduate Pilot Training] UPT bases as well as NAS Pensacola.”
Those grounded aircraft will remain under a temporary stand down “until maintenance can confirm that the escape systems are fully functional." Flying operations were expected to resume on July 28.
The flying branch is “working closely with Air Force Materiel Command to determine the inspection procedures required for these aircraft. As our teams investigate this further, if we find information that identifies other issues we will aggressively take steps to ensure flight safety, including temporarily standing down aircraft where required.”
Maj Gen Craig Wills, 19th Air Force Commander, said the grounding is being done for the safety of airmen.
"Our primary concern is the safety of our Airmen and it is imperative that they have confidence in our equipment," he said. "Our actions today were taken out of an abundance of caution in order to ensure the safety of our pilots and aircrew. We will not return aircraft affected by this issue to the flying schedule until we're confident their escape systems are fully functional.”
Instructor pilots “accomplish an incredibly important and demanding mission every day, and we owe them safe and reliable aircraft."
An undisclosed number of Navy and Marine Corps fixed-wing aircraft have also been grounded over ejection seat concerns, according to Breaking Defense, which first reported on these issues.
The Navy “recently discovered an issue affecting cartridge actuated devices (CAD) in some fixed-wing aircraft,” it said in a July 26 media release.
The release did not disclose any specific numbers, nor say if Navy or Marine F-35s are affected. We reached out to several Navy offices to get additional details and will provide them if and when we get them.
“Only aircraft equipped with CADs within a limited range of lot numbers are affected,” the release said. “The CAD will be replaced at the aircraft’s assigned squadron and the aircraft will be inspected before its next flight.”
After being notified of a potential defect by the vendor, Martin-Baker, the team at NSWC IHD “used validated radiography procedures to scan on-hand inventory to verify each item was properly manufactured before sending to the fleet to replace existing CADs.”
NSWC IHD began shipping replacement parts on July 24 to several fleet maintenance centers and planned to continue shipments throughout the week.
“Commander, Naval Air Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet (CNAP), Commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic (CNAL), and USMC Supply and Maintenance centers are coordinating the prioritized delivery of the devices to aviation squadrons throughout the Fleet,” the Navy said.
As noted earlier, British and German air forces are also experiencing ejection seat problems.
On July 23, the British Red Arrows aerial demonstration team had to cancel an air display on the final day of the Farnborough Air Show, the Daily Express reported. While the team’s flights resumed, Royal Air Force Typhoons were also grounded.
“The ban on flying includes all scramble aircraft designed to intercept hostile targets above Britain, as well as jets deployed to Romania to aid in the protection of skies above Eastern Europe as part of a wider NATO project,” the publication reported.
But in the case of a genuine threat, an RAF source told the publication that “If some baddies come over the horizon we would be up to shoo them away.”
Germany said it fixed its ejection seat problems.
An accompanying video explained how the German Luftwaffe fixed the problem with the explosive cartridges in ejection seats.
Martin-Baker provides ejection seats for the Eurofighter.
We have reached out to Martin-Baker, the RAF and Luftwaffe for more details and will update this story with any additional information.
It is unknown at this time exactly how long or how many aircraft around the world have been grounded by problems with the Martin-Baker ejection seat system. We will continue to monitor this story and provide any new details as they come available.
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Update: 7/29 6:17 p.m. EST
Steve Roberts, Head of Business Development for Martin-Baker Aircraft Co. Ltd., issued a statement about the ejection seat problems.
“During a routine maintenance inspection at Hill Air Force Base in April ’22, an anomaly was discovered with one of the Seat Cartridge Actuated Device (CAD) in the F-35 seat. This was quickly traced back to a gap in the manufacturing process which was addressed and changed. The F-35 Program introduced a one-time directive to inspect this CAD on all Seats in order to return the F-35 aircraft to flight."
"This issue was found to be unique to this particular CAD part number and unique to the F-35. Martin-Baker has been providing the primes and multiple government agencies with supporting data to prove that all other aircraft may be excluded. Outside the F-35, not a single anomaly has been discovered worldwide as a result of the forensic investigation which continues at pace."
Update: 7/29 7:40 p.m. EST
Worley, the ACC spokeswoman, said nearly its entire fleet of F-35s will remain grounded at least through the weekend.
"With a few exceptions, all ACC F-35 aircraft are in a temporary stand-down while more data is analyzed. In regards to deployed aircraft, those will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis," she told The War Zone. "The stand-down of aircraft will continue through the weekend, and a determination to safely resume normal operations is expected to be made early next week, pending analysis of the inspection data."
Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman, told The War Zone that regardless of the comments by Steve Roberts, Head of Business Development for Martin-Baker, there is no change to the status of the other grounded Air Force aircraft.