A misplaced flashlight caused nearly $4 million in damage to an F-35 fighter jet at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, according to a new accident investigation report. The March 2023 incident highlights not only human error but also potential shortcomings in the F-35’s maintenance system.
The investigation pinned the primary blame on the maintainer who left the flashlight inside the engine inlet. Failing to follow proper Air Force and joint directives led to this costly mishap. The $14 million engine was so severely damaged that it couldn’t be repaired locally, marking a significant setback for the Air Force.
However, the report also identified the F-35’s Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) as a “substantially contributing factor.” ALIS, intended to streamline maintenance and logistics, has been plagued by issues like unreliable real-time connectivity and cumbersome interfaces. This, the report suggests, fostered a sense of complacency among users navigating the “substantial number of checklists and difficulty in accessing the correct ones.”
The incident unfolded on March 15th when a three-person crew was performing a routine engine maintenance procedure. The task involved installing a metering plug and checking for leaks while the engine was running. Following protocol, one member conducted a tool inventory, and another performed a pre-operation inspection of the engine using, unfortunately, a flashlight. This flashlight, inadvertently left on the engine inlet lip, became the culprit in the drama to unfold.
After a five-minute engine run with no apparent issues on the cockpit’s foreign object detection system, the team heard unusual noises during shutdown. A closer inspection revealed the missing flashlight and damage to the engine’s various components, including rotors, fuel nozzle, and fan inlet variable vane. The total repair cost? A staggering $3,933,106.
This incident serves as a stark reminder of the importance of meticulous adherence to safety protocols, even during seemingly routine procedures. It also raises concerns about the F-35’s maintenance system, particularly the limitations of ALIS. As the investigation report concludes, “a focus on improving ALIS user interface, real-time data availability, and overall system reliability is recommended.”