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Engine fire puts F-35 fighter jets back in the hot seat

In a handout photo, the fourth U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II aircraft arrives at the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., April 24, 2013.


An engine fire on an F-35 has forced the U.S. military to ground its fleet of Lockheed-Martin fighter jets, but also fuelled doubts about the ability of the aircraft to meet the needs of the Canadian Forces.

There are widespread concerns that if Canada purchased the F-35, the single-engine fighter could not patrol the North as part of the country's responsibility to defend the continent.

The current fleet of CF-18s, which will be retired in the next decade, runs on two engines. The other companies in the race to replace the CF-18s – Boeing, Dassault and Eurofighter – are all offering twin-engine aircraft that are less susceptible to crashing in the event of an engine failure.

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NDP MP Jack Harris said the Canadian government must go to a competition to find the "safest plane" for the Royal Canadian Air Force, adding the fire makes it clear that F-35 is still in its development phase. He argued, as many experts did, that a twin-engine fighter would be safer when patrolling the vast expanses of the Arctic.

"We want the best plane for Canada's needs, not necessarily the best plane in the world," Mr. Harris said.

Ottawa is insisting that it has yet to make up its mind on the acquisition of new fighter jets, having scrapped its plans in 2012 to buy 65 F-35s without going to tenders. The acquisition was slammed by the Auditor-General at the time, with Ottawa responding by hitting the "reset button" on the acquisition.

"No decision has yet been made to replace Canada's CF-18 fleet," said Alyson Queen, a spokeswoman for Public Works Minister Diane Finley. "Ministers are reviewing a number of reports in order to decide on a path forward. That review includes information on fighter capabilities, industrial benefits, costs and other factors. Until a decision is taken, all options remain on the table."

The cabinet is reviewing six reports that were put together as part of an "options analysis" designed to provide the government with financial and technological information on the available jets.

A four-member panel of experts has supervised the process to date, leaving a final decision in the hands of the government. The main options at this point are launching a competition for new aircraft or going back to the sole-sourced acquisition of F-35s.

Still, there is a possibility that the government will feel the need to revise the statement of operational requirements (SOR) that lays out the exact needs of the Canadian Forces for the new jets.

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The current SOR can only be met by the F-35, sources have said, and some people inside government are calling for a redrawing of the specs, based on the work undertaken since 2012.

Engine failures are relatively rare, but their impact varies depending on the type of aircraft.

"When you lose an engine in a CF-18, it's a non-event," said Duff Sullivan, a retired major-general and former fighter pilot. "When you lose the engine of a single-engine aircraft, the outcome is certain: You will be ejecting from that aircraft."

Lockheed-Martin refused to comment specifically on the incident that led to the grounding of the F-35 fleet, stating that it is "working closely" with investigators.

"Safety is our team's top priority," Lockheed-Martin said in a statement.

The fire occurred on June 23 at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, as a pilot was preparing for takeoff. There was no injury, but the incident was the latest in a series of setbacks for the $400-billion (U.S.) program that has been hit by financial and technological challenges.

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"Additional inspections of F-35 engines have been ordered, and return to flight will be determined based on inspection results and analysis of engineering data," the U.S. Defence Department said in a statement.

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