A new report is raising fresh concerns about the Lockheed Martin F-35 — the front-runner in the race to become Canada’s next fighter jet — warning that its single engine poses unacceptable risks for the pilots should it fail over the ocean or the Arctic.
Academic Michael Byers says the risk of losing an engine during a flight over Canada’s remote regions — dooming the jet and potentially its pilot too — is too great a risk for Canada’s air force when twin-engine options are on the table.
“The Harper government has sidestepped the key question of whether a modern single-engine jet is as safe as a modern twin-engine jet, especially in the Arctic and over Canada’s extensive maritime zones,” Byers wrote in a report released Monday morning.
The report titled, “One Dead Pilot. Single Engine F-35s a Bad Choice for Canada’s Arctic,” was prepared for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Byers dismissed the argument from Lockheed Martin that today’s jet engines are more reliable and safer than earlier models.
“Engine failures will occur, and when they do so away from an airport, a second engine is the only thing that can prevent a crash,” wrote Byers, who holds the Canada Research Chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia.
And he said the lack of search-and-rescue resources in the north would spell trouble for a fighter pilot forced to abandon a crippled jet.
“A pilot forced to eject after a loss of power in the Arctic might have just a few hours to live,” he wrote.
“With the search-and-rescue system in its current, near-broken state, a decision to purchase a single-engine fighter would almost inevitably result in the needless loss of Canadian pilots,” Byers said in the report.
The Conservative government had selected the F-35 as its choice to replace the air force’s aging fleet of CF-18 fighters. But that decision came under sharp criticism from the auditor general for its lack of due diligence, forcing the Conservatives to push reset on the process and look more carefully at the options.
Now the government is reportedly getting close to a decision whether to proceed with the F-35 or throw the process open to competition. Reuters reported last week that Ottawa’s will skip a competition and proceed with the purchase of 65 F-35s.
However one source familiar with the process told the Star that no recommendation has been finalized and no decision made yet.
Lockheed Martin’s rivals in the contest, including the Boeing Super Hornet, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Dassault Rafale, are all twin-engine designs.
But the government — and Lockheed Martin — have turned aside the concern of an F-35 suffering a crippling engine failure.
Asked in 2010 about the potential of a F-35 suffering an engine failure in Canada’s north, then defence minister Peter MacKay said bluntly, “It won’t.”
Billie Flynn, a former Canadian air force pilot who today works as a test pilot for Lockheed Martin, says the F-35 engine is the “most sophisticated, most robust and redundant series of engine technologies.”
He said performance — not safety — has dictated the use of two engines in fighters in the past. According to Lockheed Martin, the single F-35 engine produces one-third more thrust than the two engines in Canada’s existing CF-18 fighters.
“It’s never been the case that you put two engines . . . in an airplane because of redundancy. You power an airplane because you want a certain type of performance, of range and speed,” Flynn told the Star, during a visit last month to a defence trade show in Ottawa.
“We have the single most powerful fighter engine ever developed. It can go faster, we stay up longer because we are more efficient than any other powerplant combination that exists in the world,” he said.
He said many other nations have picked the F-35 and will use the aircraft in austere environments, including the United States, which will deploy the fighter on its aircraft carriers and fly them in the middle of the ocean.
“In Holland, Denmark, Norway, Japan we’re talking about operations over the water that are no less austere than in the Canadian example. Every one of those nations has no regrets and ultimate confidence in the single-engine operation of this airplane,” Flynn said.
But officials with rival Boeing, which is trying to pitch the government on its Super Hornet jet, have told the Star that the reliability statistics don’t account for non-mechanical issues, like suffering a bird strike which can cause an engine to lose thrust or fail altogether.
Indeed, Byers cites the record of the CF-104 Starfighter, a single-engine fighter flown for more than 20 years starting in 1961. Nearly half the fleet — 110 out of 239 aircraft — was lost and one-quarter of those were due to bird strikes, Byers said in his report.
He also highlights the record of the F-16, flown by the U.S. air force. According to Byers, since 1979 279 of some 1,300 F-16s have crashed and at least 76 and perhaps as many as 166 were due to engine failures.
The Defence Department says that Canada’s fleet of two-engine CF-18s suffered an engine shut down 228 times between 1988 and 2012, though some of those may have been precautionary shutdowns rather than actual failures.