US military officials say their F-35 joint strike fighters are returning to flight for fear of potentially bad ejection seats in the fleet, but would not respond if they found problems with any aircraft.
A widespread issue with ejection seats that impacted hundreds of aircraft across the U.S. military last week was first discovered on an F-35A Lightning II back in April, but the Air Force didn’t ground its jets for three months as it investigated.
Martin-Baker, a U.K. manufacturer, said there was a problem with certain productions of its cartridge-actuated devices — explosive components used to launch an ejection seat out of the cockpit. The company said it was first discovered this past spring at an Air Force base in Utah.
“During a routine maintenance inspection at Hill AFB in April ’22, an anomaly was discovered with one of the Seat Cartridge Actuated Device (CAD) in the F-35 seat,” said Steve Roberts, a spokesman for Martin-Baker. “This was quickly traced back to a gap in the manufacturing process which was addressed and changed.”
How many military aircraft have non-functioning ejection seats is one of many questions that remain unanswered for nearly three weeks in a comprehensive effort to ensure the safety of America’s premiere fighter jets, as well as many other fleets that could be affected. Huh.
The company has data that suggests the cartridge problem may be limited to the F-35, Roberts said in July.
“Outside the F-35, not a single anomaly has been discovered worldwide as a result of the forensic investigation, which continues at pace,” he said.
A routine inspection at Hill turned up an F-35 cartridge that was loose and missing its explosive charge, Air Force Times previously reported. Maintainers checked a limited number of other aircraft to see whether the discovery was an isolated incident and decided the jets could return to flight.
Sometime in the months that followed, Martin-Baker conducted a quality-assurance check and found that its production line was turning out defective cartridges. It’s unclear when the company realized the problem, or when it alerted its military customers.
On July 19, the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office ordered workers to inspect all ejection seats within 90 days. That came three months after Hill found the first faulty cartridge, during which pilots could have run into the issue during an in-flight emergency.
Military and company officials note that the defect only affects aircraft with cartridges from certain production batches, but have declined to answer how many cartridges were built as part of those lots or the number of aircraft on which they were installed.
The situation picked up steam as it entered the public eye in the weeks that followed.
The release disclosed that a cartridge problem affected some Navy fixed-wing aircraft — the F/A-18B/C/D Hornet and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter jets, E/A-18G Growler electronic attack plane, and T-45 Goshawk and F-5 Tiger II trainers.