Dutch F-35As briefly grounded due to engine concerns

The Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) has confirmed it briefly grounded its in-country fleet of Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II fifth-generation multi-role stealth fighters due to engine wear concerns.

The grounding order was announced by the air arm on April 22, after three of the nine F-35As – operated by No 322 Squadron at Leeuwarden Air Base in the Dutch province of Friesland – were found to have suffered from engine wear during standard inspections. Growing concerns that foreign object debris (FOD), such as dirt and grit from the anti-slip layer of the runway system was causing this wear on the F-35A’s Pratt & Whitney F135 afterburning turbofan engine.

Dutch F-35A [RNLAF]
An RNLAF-operated F-35A Lightning II - serial F-001 (c/n AN-1) - on the ground at Leeuwarden Air Base in the Dutch province of Friesland. The aircraft had just arrived at the base for an introductory visit to the Netherlands in 2016. RNLAF

Leeuwarden hosts fighters belonging to both the RNLAF’s Lockheed Martin F-16A/B (MLU) Fighting Falcon and F-35A Lightning II fleets. While three F-35As are confirmed to have suffered from this engine wear, these issues have not been reported to have occurred with the F-16. The Lightning II’s single F135 engine is heavier than the F-16’s Pratt & Whitney 100-PW-220E afterburning turbofan. It also produces more thrust, meaning it has the ability to blow more grit and dirt around when taxiing.

Taking to Twitter on April 23, Leeuwarden Air Base (@VlbLeeuwarden) confirmed that its nine resident F-35As had been cleared for flight operations once again. “Additional measures to prevent FOD have now been taken. The F-35 fleet is now allowed to fly again”, it added.

At present, the RNLAF maintains a fleet of 17 F-35As, nine of which are based at Leeuwarden, with the remaining eight examples currently being flown in the US for training and evaluation purposes.

Dutch F-35A [USAF/Samuel King Jr]
As of April 23, 2021, the RNLAF maintains a fleet of 17 F-35A Lightning IIs, of which nine are based at Leeuwarden Air Base in the Netherlands, with the remaining eight located in the US. USAF/Samuel King Jr

AirForces Intelligence data adds that the RNLAF’s US-based F-35As are operated as part of the 56th Fighter Wing’s 308th Fighter Squadron, which serves as a joint American, Danish and Dutch training squadron from Luke Air Force Base (AFB) in Arizona. The RNLAF’s No 323 Squadron also conducts training and evaluation operations from Edwards AFB, California.

The first F-35A was handed over to the Netherlands in October 2013. At that time, the nation planned to acquire up to 85 examples of the type to replace its ageing F-16AM/BM (MLU) fleets. In April 2012, the Dutch government confirmed it will severely reduce the number of Lightning IIs ordered due to financial constraints and the rising costs of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme. By the end of 2018, the Netherlands outlined its intention to procure a total of 67 F-35As, as opposed to the 85 originally planned.