Wait and See

By Jason Simpson / February 3, 2009 at 5:00 AM

The GE Rolls-Royce team building the secondary engine to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has begun testing its first production-configuration F136 engine a month ahead of schedule, the companies announced this week.

The engine began testing Jan. 30 and represents the first complete engine assembled following government validation of the design in 2008, according to a GE Rolls-Royce statement. Several more engines are scheduled to be tested by the end of the year.

The statement touts: “The F136 engine is a product of the best technology from two world-leading propulsion companies. The GE Rolls-Royce Fighter Engine Team has designed the only engine specifically developed for the F-35 aircraft, offering extra temperature margin and affordable growth.”

This program is one that the Defense Department has refused to fund in previous spending budgets, even though Congress has mandated the funding for the JSF's alternate engine and has time and time again re-infused F-35 coffers with monies to go to the GE Rolls-Royce power plant.

The question now is whether the F136 has similar issues as the fifth-generation jet's primary power supply, the Pratt & Whitney F135. Though the JSF program office has said repeatedly -- after the fact -- that officials were expecting it, a Pratt engine suffered “high-cycle fatigue” when it failed and a blade broke off during a test for the Marine Corps' short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing variant almost a year ago. This incident occurred roughly half a year after a similar incident on an engine for the Air Force's conventional takeoff-and-landing variant.

Program Executive Officer Maj. Gen. Charles Davis has said that these types of issues occur when testing new jets and engines, and has not come out to say that any of the F135 incidents were huge deals. But with all the Pentagon has done to try to kill the program, will it be more critical with problems on the F136?