Boeing sues Alcoa over parts for F-22 Raptor fighters
Some of the U.S. Air Force's new F-22 Raptor fighter jets are flying with a manufacturing defect in crucial titanium supports in a section...
Seattle Times aerospace reporter
Some of the U.S. Air Force's new F-22 Raptor fighter jets are flying with a manufacturing defect in crucial titanium supports in a section built by Boeing.
The Air Force agreed to allow the defect to stay because of the cost and delay to fix it. But the jets will require more frequent inspections because of the potential for a catastrophic failure in flight.
Details of the problem emerged late last month when Boeing sued Alcoa, the Pittsburgh, Penn.-based subcontractor that forged the titanium parts. The suit seeks more than $12 million for extra costs incurred because of the alleged shoddy manufacturing.
Boeing said the jets are safe for military operations as long as the potentially defective parts are inspected regularly.
"The Air Force has determined there is not a safety-of-flight issue here and they have not grounded the aircraft," said Boeing F-22 spokesman Doug Cantwell. "There will be more frequent inspections, making sure no cause for concern does develop. Boeing employees will keep an eye on them."
Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor on the F-22, which will replace the Air Force's aging Boeing-built F-15s and other aircraft. As a subcontractor, Boeing builds the Raptor wings and aft fuselage in Seattle.
From 2000 through 2005, Alcoa supplied Boeing with the forged titanium parts that provide structural support in a section of the aft fuselage that "connects the wings to the fuselage of the aircraft," the filing states. This section's "failure could result in the loss of the aircraft."
Each aircraft has five forged titanium supports per wing; four on each side could be affected.
During manufacturing, these eight supports must be heat-treated in a furnace under precise conditions to strengthen the metal's microstructure.
Boeing's complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, alleges Alcoa "failed to follow required procedures" and failed to add a crucial extra 20 minutes in the furnace that was needed for proper forging.
After that was discovered in fall 2005, Boeing's testing established that the imperfect forging procedure "increases the rate of crack growth and reduces the damage tolerance life" of the parts — defined as "the length of time for a crack to propagate undetected from a manufacturing defect to cause the catastrophic failure of the aircraft."
In April 2005, Alcoa was replaced as supplier of the forgings "because of cost issues" unrelated to the defect, Boeing's Cantwell said.
By then, Alcoa had delivered 695 of the forged titanium supports, of which 384 were installed on 48 jets, 88 were installed on 11 partially assembled aircraft and 179 were at a stage where they could still be inspected and tested.
To date, a total of 459 of the forgings have been inspected and 71 have proved defective. Inspections will continue into next year.
Boeing and Alcoa attempted to develop a "reheat" procedure to fix the defective parts, but this caused metal distortion and "proved economically infeasible," the filing states.
The inspections and extra engineering required to develop the reheat procedure cost Boeing at least $5.3 million.
In addition, the Air Force withheld $27 million in payments until it reached a settlement with Boeing last June. The settlement requires Boeing to perform $6.4 million worth of extra work at no cost.
Boeing wants Alcoa to reimburse all the extra costs plus legal fees.
Alcoa spokesman Kevin Lowery downplayed the issue as a "commercial dispute" and said, "We weren't able to come to some kind of agreement. Now we're going to move the commercial dispute into another venue."
Lowery conceded "there is a defect there" but declined to discuss who was at fault.
Lockheed Martin spokesman Rob Fuller declined to comment.
In the end, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and the Air Force chose to live with the defective Alcoa forgings in the first batch of 101 aircraft, because they "may only be removed at substantial cost and disruption to aircraft-production operations," Boeing's filing said.
Boeing's filing describes the continued use of the defective forgings as "commercially reasonable."
"Discontinuing use of the Alcoa ... forgings would shut down the F-22 aircraft production line for months, exposing Boeing and Lockheed Martin to damage claims from the Air Force," the filing states.
Air Force public-affairs officer Lt. Col. Jennifer Cassidy said in an e-mail, "The Air Force would never do anything that would compromise the safety of our airmen."
This year's Air Force budget estimates put a price tag of $137 million to the F-22 Raptor. Lockheed has so far delivered 110 Raptors.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Cutbacks likely on Army work
Budget constraints are likely to force the U.S. Army to cut back on the combat capabilities of the $159.3 billion system of vehicles, drones and communications that Boeing is developing for the service, congressional auditors said Thursday.
There are "significant technical challenges" in producing software codes and communications for the Future Combat Systems (FCS) program, the Government Accountability Office said.
Army cost estimates are based on "uncertain" data, and as the program moves to full production in 2013, it will compete for funds with the Army's need to replace equipment lost or damaged in Iraq, new weapons and continued conversion of the force into brigades from divisions, GAO Director of Acquisition Management Paul Francis told a House Armed Services Committee panel.
"The Army will likely continue to reduce FCS capabilities in order to stay within available funding limits," Francis said.
The Army wants about $3.6 billion next year for the program.
Boeing and Science Applications International are the top contractors leading the development phase.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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