James: Despite Accident, B-52 Re-Engining Not Urgent

The accident earlier this week in which a TF33 engine fell off a B-52 near Minot AFB, N.D. doesn’t signal that the Stratofortress fleet needs a quick re-engining, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said Friday. Speaking to an AFA-sponsored, Air Force industry breakfast in Arlington, Va., James broke with protocol, which usually demands that senior leaders refrain from discussing accidents until investigations are completed, saying the episode appears to have happened because the engine “seemingly disintegrated” and “came off the aircraft” during the training flight. The root cause is still unknown, James said, but it’s hoped more will be learned if the engine can be recovered. It’s believed to be at “the bottom of a riverbed,” she added, saying efforts are being made to retrieve it. There were no injuries associated with the mishap. “Timing is everything,” James observed, noting the irony that the accident happened while she was visiting Minot to take a final pulse of nuclear airmen at the base—before she leaves her job—to see if changes applied to the career field in recent years have had a positive effect.

However, the episode doesn’t create “more urgency” to a proposed B-52 re-engining, she said. Though the idea has merits, it has consistently come up short against other priorities, James explained. She didn’t rule it out, though, saying the Air Force continues to look at “various tests and comparisons” and “creative financing” vehicles that could pay for such a program. USAF has previously looked at leasing new engines, finding that such a program would pay for itself in fuel savings in only a few years, but has lacked the start-up money to do it, and the need is “not critical enough.” She added that there were “more critical upgrades” needed to keep the B-52 combat-capable. Overall, the B-52’s mission capable rate remains “excellent,” she said, and there’s no reason yet “to think this is a fleet-wide problem,” even though the B-52 is “one of our oldest aircraft.”