F-35: Canada's next 'Widow Maker'?


The federal government is once again being pressed to reconsider its previously announced decision to buy a fleet of F-35 stealth fighter jets.  “This time the argument isn’t about cost or procurement problems, it’s about what’s inside the plane” (James Fitz-Morris, “Buying single-engine F-35 for Canada a ‘serious mistake’: report,” CBC News, 9 June 2014).

The Rideau Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released a new report by Michael Byers this week detailing the dangers associated with the single-engine F-35.

In his report, Byers compares the F-35 to the CF-104 Starfighter, a single-engine aircraft that the Canadian Air Force flew from 1961 to 1987. The Starfighter was involved in 110 crashes during that period, but never saw combat—a quarter of its crashes were attributed to bird strikes and the absence of a second engine to assist the pilot in an emergency.

The Starfighter was nicknamed the “Widow Maker” in commemoration of the 39 Canadian pilots who lost their lives flying the aircraft.

One Dead Pilot: Single Engine F-35 a Bad Choice for Canada’s Arctic takes aim at the Harper government’s dogged commitment to the F-35 as a replacement for Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18 fighter jets. With the exception of the F-35, all the CF-18′s potential replacements have two engines.

“A decision to purchase a single-engine would almost inevitably result in the needless loss of Canadian pilots,” says Byers, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia who recently won the $50,000 Donner Prize for excellence in public policy for his book International Law and the Arctic.

“This issue is especially important for Canada, which has the longest coastline in the world and vast Arctic territories,” writes Byers.

“The Harper government has sidestepped the key question of whether a modern single-engine jet is as safe as a modern twin-engine jet, especially in the Arctic and over Canada’s extensive maritime zones,” Byers argues.

The government and Lockheed Martin maintain that improvements in the reliability of engines make modern single-engine aircraft as safe as twin-engine aircraft.

In his report, Byers dismisses this claim with recent statistical data from the U.S. Air Force Safety Center.  “The number of accidents leading to the loss of a pilot and/or aircraft remains significantly higher for single-engine fighter jets than for twin-engine fighter jets.”

“Engine failures will occur, and when they do so away from an airport, a second engine is the only thing that can prevent a crash,” writes Byers, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.

Byers maintain thats the limited resources available for search-and-rescue operations in the north would be a nightmare for a fighter pilot forced to abandon a dying jet.

“A pilot forced to eject after a loss of power in the Arctic might have just a few hours to live.

“With the search-and-rescue system in its current, near-broken state, a decision to purchase a single-engine fighter would almost inevitably result in the needless loss of Canadian pilots,” Byers argues in the report.

You can download and read Byers’ report One Dead Pilot here and watch the press conference on our Youtube channel.

Photo credit: Defence Images

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