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How Pratt & Whitney’s engine issues are hurting Alabama’s vaunted F-35 program

The entire state of Alabama cheered when the Air Force decided to base F-35 Joint Strike Fighters at Dannelly Field in Montgomery. The F-35, hailed as the U.S. military’s “most cutting-edge war machine,” has already injected millions into Alabama’s economy and is set to continue the Yellowhammer State’s rich history of military prowess.

But a recent crash in South Carolina and the temporary grounding of the F-35 worldwide has resulted in much less laudatory headlines.

In 2016, while the country was paying attention to the presidential race, Alabama was in a heated race of its own. Eighteen Air National Guard units nationwide, including the 187th Fighter Wing in Montgomery, were jockeying to field the new F-35 aircraft.

According to Congresswoman Martha Roby (R-AL2), the 187th Fighter Wing was “the first Air National Guard wing to conduct a stand-alone six-month deployment to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom… Their reputation in military circles is sterling.” The Alabama congressional delegation touted that reputation, including the 187th Fighter Wing’s history as the legacy unit of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, while making the case for housing the F-35 program at Dannelly Field.

They were ultimately successful.

In December of 2017, the United States Air Force announced that it had selected Truax Field Air National Guard Base in Wisconsin and Dannelly Field in Alabama as the preferred locations for the F-35.

“Selecting Truax Field and Dannelly Field will increase Air National Guard F-35A units providing 5th Generation airpower around the world,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said at the time. “As F-35As arrive at these locations, we will use the existing aircraft at these fields to replace the aging F-16s at other Air National Guard units.”

After the announcement, Dannelly Field began undertaking a multi-year, $50 million construction project to house between 18 and 24 F-35s. An additional six pilots are also expected to be added to the unit. In addition to the construction workers and federal contractors who will benefit greatly from the flurry of economic activity, the flow of new money from the base and people working there is expected to boost local businesses.

The F-35s are expected to start arriving in Alabama just a few short years from now in 2023, but first, the program is going to have to overcome some startling setbacks.

Last month, the Pentagon decided to temporarily ground F-35 aircraft operating around the world “due to faulty engine tubes,” according to DefenseOne.

Lockheed Martin designed and built the state-of-the-art plane. Their Alabama roots go back a half-century and they continue to enjoy a large presence in Huntsville and at a missile factory in Pike County. But it’s not Lockheed’s work that seems to be the issue here, it’s the work of Pratt & Whitney, the engine maker.

The F-35’s Joint Program Office launched a worldwide inspection in search of “suspect fuel tubes” in the P&W engines, which are believed to have resulted in a downed plane during a training mission in South Carolina. The pilot safely ejected before the crash, but the plane was lost.

“We are actively partnering with the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office (and) our global customers and Pratt & Whitney to support the resolution of this issue and limit disruption to the fleet,” a Lockheed Martin spokesman said.

For the sake of the U.S. military, the team at Dannelly Field and Alabama’s River Region economy, let’s hope Pratt & Whitney gets their issues straightened out soon. There’s a lot at stake.