Can Birds Take Out an F-35 Fighter?

One Canadian study says that's a distinct possibility.

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Jun 11 2014, 6:50pm
Image: Lockheed Martin

The troubled F-35 aircraft has already been questioned for its exorbitant price tag and called a “turkey” by one plane expert. Now it's being criticized for its vulnerability to bird strikes—at least according to one defence professor at the University of British Columbia.

In a recently published study titled “One Dead Pilot,” political science and Arctic professor Michael Byers raises serious concerns surrounding the single-engine F-35 fighter. “The F-35 has only one engine,” Byers points out in his study. “This fact alone renders it problematic for use in Canada’s Arctic and extensive maritime zones.”

Having one engine means if a bird—of which there happen to be many across Canada's wild lands—happens to be swallowed up by the plane, the whole fighter and its pilot are probably going down. Believe it or not, this isn’t an uncommon concern. Remember the Hudson River landing of flight 1549. Yep, it was the result of the plane striking a flock of Canada geese

Canada is likely purchasing these fighters as a long-term successor to an aging CF-18 fleet. The plan is for the F-35, fit with what maker Lockheed Martin touts as fifth generation stealth and bombing capabilities, to patrol an increasingly contentious Arctic landmass on the wish list of Vladimir Putin—a guy who takes his disputed borders very seriously.

Because that mission entails cruising thousands of Arctic kilometres of barren land, reliability is a must. Byers argues that if something goes wrong, that one engine will be a liability. 

Citing the brutal history of the CF-104 Starfighter, another Lockheed product in service for Canada between 1961-1987 and a plane he actively compares to the modern F-35, Byers sounds the alarm on single-engine aircraft.

“The Starfighter had just one engine, any failure of which would lead to a crash,” Byers said. “The single engine also made it vulnerable to crashes involving bird strikes. As a tactical strike aircraft, the Starfighters flew fast at low altitudes, exacerbating this risk. During the 26 years of operation, about one-quarter of Canada’s 110 Starfighter crashes were attributed to bird strikes.”

Byers points out that although the plane never saw combat, 39 Canadian pilots died and nearly half the fleet (110 out of 239 aircraft) were lost over the plane's lifespan. (Unsurprisingly that fighter gained the moniker “Widow Maker.”) The plane's single engine was one of the very reasons Canada followed it with the purchase of twin-engine CF-18s, which are now ready for replacement.

The argument for the F-35's single engine boils down to packaging and cost; a single-engine plane is nominally cheaper to run, and the requirement that the plane have potential VSTOL configurations meant a second engine would likely have been too bulky and too heavy.

I reached out to Lockheed Martin test pilot and former Canadian Forces member Billie Flynn to ask what his take on the single-engine debate was, and if bird strikes concerned him flying the F-35.

“It has the most sophisticated foreign objects damage measuring sensors in any aircraft, ever,” Flynn said to me over the phone.

As for the CF-104 comparison, he said those planes had fragile engines and were second generation fighters, nothing compared to the fifth generation F-35. Flynn also pointed out that the single engine F-16 is already in use in Alaska by the US Air Force, seeing service in just as harsh an Arctic environment as the prospective Canadian patrols.

But given Canada’s extensive maritime borders, Byers says the Harper government is avoiding the statistical evidence pointing to both the threat of birds and the added safety of a twin-engine aircraft.

“Thus far, the Harper government has sidestepped the key question of whether a modern single-engine jet is as safe as a modern twin-engine jet,” he writes in the report.

Byers’s study is causing a major stir in Canadian parliament, tainting the plane's reputation while reports float around the government is planning to press on with the purchase order of new F-35 fighters. For its part, the Harper government is dismissing Byers’ assessment of the plane. The report has provided all sorts of political ammunition for the opposition NDP—the same party, it’s worth noting, that Byers ran for in a federal election. 

Partisanship aside, the single-engine criticism of the plane is a common one I heard visiting CANSEC, a Canadian defense trade show. Some officials of companies building rival fighters all mentioned to me the threat of the bird when using single-engine planes, not so subtly referring to the F-35.

“It’s interesting in Canada to talk about twin-engines and single-engines. But I reckon any of the countries that have already picked the F-35 have unique environments. Every one of them has evaluated whether single engine criteria is a core thought, and have the confidence in the F-35,” he said.

According to Flynn the plane has the single most powerful engine ever made, and he said he has no trouble pushing it. “Full of gas, full of bombs, full of missiles… I don’t need two engines," he said. "I have everything I want in that engine.” 

Whatever the fate of the F-35 is in Canada, the debate surrounding the pricey fighter will likely rage on until they either starting hitting sea gulls in Nunavut or scare off Russian MiG fighters patrolling in Alert.