Air Force Worries Hot Fuel Could Harm F-35, “Proactively” Paints Trucks Shiny

The most expensive fighter jet in military history, the F-35 Lighting II, is now projected to run well over a trillion dollars in estimated program costs and has taken years of development after a series of delays. 

It appears the fighter’s flaws are still not completely ironed out as this week reports emerged of a troubling general operations “shutdown” of the F-35 Lightning II test fleet due to concerns that hot jet fuel.  Apparently the U.S. Air Force (USAF) is concerned that the F-35 Lightning II’s engines may malfunction if filled up with hot fuel from a truck that was sitting outside on a hot summer day.  

USAF officials claim that there were no actual malfunctions and that the grounding was merely a “proactive” step, given the delicate nature of the powerful engine that drives the jet.

The fuel fears forced the Luke Air Force Base (AFB) to repaint fuel trucks with a white reflective paint.  Repainting each truck, which sits near the runways and doesn’t have any shade, costs $3,900 per fuel truck.  Just one fuel truck has been repainted so far, and testing is being done to see if the reflective paint helps keep the stored fuel at a cooler temperature.

The good news is that with the new paint job keeping the fuel a bit cooler, there have been no reported incidents of F-35 failing to fly in hotter temperatures, with military officials noting the jet flew well during hot desert climate test flights.

A F-16 (foreground) accompanies a F-35 Lightning aircraft in flight. [Image Source: USAF]
USAF officials downplayed the latest delay.

“This is not an F-35 issue; there are no special restrictions on the F-35 related to fuel temperature,” the US Pentagon F-35 Joint Program claims in a statement to CNBC.  “The F-35 uses the same fuel as other military aircraft.  It can fly under the same temperature conditions as any other advanced military aircraft.”

Luke AFB is among six other airbases testing the next-generation fighter jet.  Its stable currently includes 14 F-35 aircraft,

Major Matt Hasson, Luke AFB public affairs officer, says the F-35 – like other fighter jets – has a fuel temperature threshold, but trying to pinpoint that number is difficult.  He also put a cheery spin on the troubles, claiming that the “jets are performing phenomenally” and that “there’s no problem.”

While such optimism is a nice sentiment, the fuel issues raise serious concerns as one of the F-35 variants, the F-35B is supposedly going to serve as a “forward” combat craft, which means it will be deployed to airstrips held in hostile territory.  Normally in such cases the U.S. Air Force uses green or tan camoflaged trucks (depending on the terrain) to make the massive refueling truck less of a rolling target.

Again, there’s a bit of good news.  The fuel temperature appears to be more a function of the coating on top of the paint, not the paint color.  The white paint’s finishing coat is a shiny solar polyurethane enamel.  It should be possible to put that coat on top of traditional camoflaged paint colors — tan, green, etc.

However, the coat will likely make the fuel tankers somewhat shiny, and thus more visible to enemy combatants.  That could call the F-35’s role as a “forward” strike craft — one of its key planned uses into question and put American lives at risk.