WASHINGTON — Nearly six weeks into the acceptance flight pause that has halted deliveries of new F-35 fighters, it remains uncertain when they will resume.
In an earnings call with analysts Tuesday, Lockheed Martin chief executive Jim Taiclet said the company is awaiting the completion of an investigation into a Dec. 15 F-35B mishap before acceptance flights — required before new fighters can be delivered — can once again take place.
Taiclet did not provide a time frame for when he expects deliveries to resume.
The company’s earnings report for the end of 2022 offered a glimpse of how the delivery pause at the end of the year hit its aeronautics sector’s bottom line.
Overall, according to Lockheed, its aeronautics sector recorded nearly $27 billion in net sales in 2022, $239 million more than in 2021. That included increases of about $375 million on classified contracts with higher volumes, $80 million more for the F-22, and growth of about $55 million for the F-16 program.
But that growth was offset by a sales decline of about $310 million for the F-35, which Lockheed Martin said was due in part to lower volume.
Lockheed halted acceptance flights of new Joint Strike Fighters immediately after a Dec. 15 mishap involving a newly constructed F-35B during an acceptance flight in Texas. Video of that mishap showed the F-35B hovering close to the ground before descending, bouncing and tipping forward until its nose and wing touched the ground. Its pilot safely ejected from the spinning fighter.
The Navy’s investigation into the mishap, which is still ongoing, uncovered signs that a high-pressure fuel tube in the fighter’s Pratt & Whitney-made F135 engine had failed, a source familiar with the program told Defense News last month.
On Dec. 27, the Defense Department, Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney agreed to pause delivery of new F135 engines while the investigation continues to look for the root cause of the accident.
The pause in acceptance flights for new F-35s in turn halted deliveries. Lockheed Martin said last month it had been on track to meet its goal of 148 fighters delivered by the end of the year before the new planes were grounded. The company ended up delivering 141 F-35s in 2022.
Taiclet said in Tuesday’s earnings call the company is waiting on the government and Pratt & Whitney to finish the mishap investigation, and that the company expects to be notified it can resume acceptance flights and deliveries once that is done.
Taiclet said final production of F-35s — primarily at its facility in Fort Worth, Texas, but also in Italy and Japan — is continuing at the same pace before the mishap occurred. Lockheed is also continuing to order and receive parts to use in its jets.
Lockheed officials also touched on the company’s plans to upgrade fighters with a new batch of hardware and software upgrades, which is expected to begin with the production of lot 15 fighters later this year.
Jay Malave, Lockheed’s chief financial officer, said the company hopes to begin retrofitting the existing fleet of F-35s with the hardware and software upgrades known as Technology Refresh 3 sometime next year. This will be part of Lockheed Martin’s sustainment work on the F-35.
The Air Force flew its first test F-35 with TR3 — which includes improved memory, processing power and displays, and will help get the fighter ready for Block 4 upgrades — earlier this month.
Taiclet said Lockheed plans to roll out more software releases and added capabilities in the months to come.
“It’ll be able to handle more weapons, it’ll be able to upgrade electronic warfare capabilities, it’ll be able to accomplish more missions,” Taiclet said. “The basic functionality of the aircraft alone is going to be elevated significantly by the insertion of this technology.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.