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Why the F-35s briefly stopped flying over Vermont this summer

A photo of an F-35 jet on a tarmac, with grass in the foreground and background, and a person in military uniform walking near the wing.
AP/U.S. Air Force, Samuel King Jr.
/
The F-35s in Vermont and elsewhere were temporarily grounded in July over concerns about their ejection seats.

The fleet of F-35 fighter jets based at the Vermont Air National Guard base in South Burlington, along with hundreds of F-35s around the globe, were temporarily grounded in July over a technical issue involving the ejection seats.

Host Mikaela Lefrak spoke with Rachel Cohen, senior reporter with the independent Air Force Times, about the issue. They also discussed concerns about noise pollution in Vermont and other communities with military jets.

Cohen reported that the military hasn’t found any defective ejection seat parts on its F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, or on other potentially affected combat and training aircraft, during widespread checks that began in July. As a result, the F-35s have started returning to flight.

Find their conversation below, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mikaela Lefrak: Now, you recently reported that the U.S. military discovered a problem with the ejection seats in the F-35s. What exactly was the issue?

Rachel Cohen: So Martin-Baker, which is the manufacturer for the seats, ended up finding that the – there's a part called the cartridge, and it has basically the ejection-seat-version of gunpowder. So it's this magnesium powder. So when you pull the lever to eject out of a plane in an emergency, that powder is supposed to ignite and you shoot up, and then you, you know, hopefully get to safety.

Martin-Baker found that some of the cartridges didn't have that. So, you know, in a case where you would need it, theoretically, you wouldn't go anywhere, which obviously is a concern to the people flying the F-35. So they found it, the Air Force found it in April, and they found it out at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. And they said, you know, we'll check some other ones, make sure it's not more widespread. And then after they were looking at those, then Martin-Baker came back and said, actually, this is a problem on our end with our production line.

So you know, now a few months later, they're looking at all of them, and not just the F-35. But they're looking at a couple different training planes, they're looking at, you know, the Navy's got some other fighter jets and electronic attack jets that might be affected, some NATO planes. So pretty much anybody with an ejection seat in this particular family is getting a second look right now.

You mentioned that this problem with the ejection seats was first discovered a couple of months ago. Why is it taking so much time to start doing this, like, kind of mass round of maintenance inspections?

I don't think we have, you know, a very specific answer to that. I think the the easy answer is, things in the military don't always move very quickly. You know, checking planes takes a while, you know, kind of deconflicting the different levels of management takes a while.

The fact of the matter is, we don't really know when Martin-Baker first found that it was a more widespread issue. You know, that's something that we're still trying to figure out.

And is there any evidence that aviators were flying unsafe jets?

That's a good question. You know, I think in general, they're being extra cautious.

So as many of our listeners know, one of the F-35 bases is in South Burlington. Can you give us a sense of where the other major bases are for F-35s, and broadly, how many F-35s are out there?

Yeah, Lockheed Martin has delivered about 800 F-35s worldwide so far, the bulk of the program is going to go to the U.S., so about half of the ones that have been delivered so far are American jets. Most of those have gone to the Air Force so far. The major bases are Hill Air Force Base out in Utah, Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, they're bringing some more to Florida. There's the Guard bases like up in Vermont, you know, some over in England.

There's going to be pockets of F-35s everywhere, and certainly increasing as the program picks up over time.

Now a Vermont National Guard spokesperson told us that the Guard "immediately stopped flying all aircraft" in Vermont when it heard about this issue with the ejection seat. And the Vermont Guard's fleet of F-35s were also recently grounded for what officials say is routine maintenance, which includes looking again at that cartridge in question. And the Guard told us that those inspections could take around two to three weeks.

What are you seeing for other fleets of these jets? How long is this going to take to resolve?

It really depends on the service, and it depends on what part of the military we're talking about, you know, within the Air Force as well.

So, Air Combat Command, which owns the vast majority of them, they've said the game plan is to have everything done within 90 days. You know, at this point in the year, that puts us mid-fall. But obviously there — it seems like they're trying to go as fast as they can. The Navy and Marine Corps Navy has said that they're done already. Marine Corps, I believe, as of a few days ago, was I think 90% done. So they might be done by now.

But yeah, it takes time. I think the question that we're still trying to figure out that we haven't gotten answered is, you know, OK, so you say you're making good progress, what does that actually mean in terms of numbers? Have you found seats that are defective? You know, you say your unaffected aircraft have returned to flight, OK, well, how many have not returned to flight?

So it's, you know, I think that's something that we're going to have to figure out in the next — in the coming weeks and months, but it's gonna take a little bit. I don't think it's — it's not an overnight fix, like some might hope.

And I should also note here that the Guard spokesperson stressed to us that any of the F-35s that are currently based in Vermont have already gone through inspections for the ejector cartridge to ensure that they are safe to fly.

Now, Rachel, big picture, what have you heard from military leaders about having to keep so many of these jets grounded? Like what does this mean for the larger missions that they might be a part of?

So I think when you look at the F-35s that are in Europe, obviously playing a really big role with the war in Ukraine right now, in terms of air patrols over NATO, you know, basically just making sure that Russian jets and anybody else that might want to intrude, stays out, they appear to all be back up and running.

In general, officials are saying, you know, this, it's OK, we're doing our due diligence, the F-35 enterprise lives to see another day. It's not an issue of no F-35s are flying at all.

I think a big issue is the effect that it's having on training jets for the Air Force, and also for the Navy. Because there's hundreds of those planes that are getting checked out, the Air Force always talks about the pilot shortage that it has, this isn't going to make that better. You know, when you have fewer planes for people to go train in, it takes longer to get people in the cockpit.

On that note, your reporting has highlighted other recent issues with the jet, that's caused them to be grounded, thinking specifically here of the fuel lines. There have also been a handful of software problems, a potential shortage of engines. Broadly, do you feel like military leaders trust this jet?

It is a very capable airplane. It's a flying supercomputer, you know, in their words. But there are a lot of kinks in the system that have needed working out, a lot of supply chain issues with getting spare parts to where they need to be. Getting, you know, various fixes to helmets. And, like you said, the fuel lines, you know, being vulnerable to lightning.

It's one of those things that it sometimes, it seems like anything that can go wrong, has. But in general, I mean, they've been deployed, you know, in Europe, they've been deployed in the Middle East. The F-35 pilots, they're still getting in the cockpit every day. I think there's stuff that will be worked out. But there's not a sense of, you know, "I don't want to get in this thing."

Now, the F-35s based here in Vermont had been the subject of a lot of heated debate over the past three or so years since they arrived here, due to how loud the jet engines are during the training runs that they do over the larger Burlington area. Is this an issue that you've heard other communities facing?

I think noise complaints are going to be an issue near any military base anywhere. They're not quiet airplanes, just military aircraft in general are not quiet airplanes. So you know, I think it's a local issue that people have to figure out no matter what community they're in.

And the military, you know, it weighs those concerns. There's a thing called a environmental impact report before it decides to put any planes anywhere. And you know, noise pollution is always one of those concerns. It's one of those issues that locals might never be satisfied with. But you know, there's other people that call it the sound of freedom. I think it just depends on you know, who you talk to, and how bad it's getting.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontpublic.

Mikaela Lefrak joined Vermont Public in 2021 as co-host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Tedra joined Vermont Public as a producer for Vermont Edition in January 2022. Before moving to Vermont, she was a journalist in New York City for 20 years. She has a master’s degree in journalism from New York University.