Jet engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney has been accused by a former employee of using an ineffective assembly process for engines that go in U.S. fighter jets and manipulating test processes to pass inspection, according to a whistle-blower suit recently made public.
The legal complaint was filed October 2016 in U.S. District Court in Connecticut by a man named Peter Bonzani, a former engineer at the firm.
Bonzani alleges that the company used the wrong equipment to apply a sealant spray required to keep engine parts together and keep hot gas from leaking throughout the engine. According to Bonzani the “plume” of the spray gun being used to apply the sealant was too short, meaning it couldn’t reach the inner crevices of the engine.
A Pratt & Whitney spokesman denied the allegations but declined to answer specific questions: “There is absolutely no merit to these claims. Pratt & Whitney intends to defend this case aggressively.”
Bonzani worked on the F119 engine, the jet engine in F-22 Raptors, a fighter jet used by the U.S. Air Force, as well as F100 engines used in the F-16 and F-15 fighter jets.
If his allegations are correct, there is a worry that F-119 and F-100 jet engines used on the F-15, F-16 and F-22 fighter jets could deteriorate more quickly than had been expected. The F-16 fighter jet has been deployed not only by the U.S. Air Force but also by Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Pakistan.
Failures involving F119 and F100 engines have resulted in several recent in-flight mishaps, though no evidence has yet emerged that they were caused by inadequately applied sealant. On April 6, 2018, for example, an F-22 Raptor was forced to make an emergency landing at Tyndall Air Force Base is Florida after its engine failed. Later that month another F-22 was forced to land without landing gear for the same reason.
According to Bonzani, one company technician who was responsible for testing the engine parts admitted that testing equipment had been “manipulated to give a positive result” on whether engines were production ready.
The complaint accuses Pratt & Whitney and its parent company, United Technologies, of engaging in “a pattern of intentional and/or reckless conduct” that “knowingly exposed United States military aircraft and pilots to substantial and wholly unnecessary risk,” by failing to fix the process. Bonzani also accused his former employer of violating the False Claims Act, a U.S. law that concerns breaking the terms of a contract with the government.
The two companies “perpetrated their fraud on the United States and its pilots by intentionally manipulating, and/or recklessly disregarding, product quality, durability testing and related procedures in the production of military jet engines on an international scale…over a period of decades,” the complaint says.
The government declined to intervene on its own before the documents were unsealed, something that legal experts said could point to a weakness in the whistle-blower’s case.
Franklin Turner, a government contracts attorney with the law firm McCarter & English who has defended corporations in False Claims Act cases, described Bonzani’s suit as “riddled with conjecture.”
“The fact that the government looked at a target like this and decided not to intervene is an indication of, at this juncture of the case, some fatal flaw in [Bonzani’s] case,” Turner said.