A former engineer for defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. claims in a federal whistleblower lawsuit that the company knowingly used "defective" stealth coatings when building its F-22 Raptor stealth jets.
Darrol Olsen, a stealth engineer who was fired by Lockheed in 1999, claims Lockheed "falsely certified" the coatings between September 1995 and June 1999, saying they had passed stealth tests and concealing results that showed otherwise. Olsen said in the lawsuit he was told to "stay out of it" when he complained to his superiors.
The whistleblower suit was originally filed in October 2007 in California and was unsealed earlier this year. It was transferred to federal court last week in Atlanta, near where the jets are assembled at Lockheed's facility in Marietta.
The case comes a month after President Barack Obama signed a measure ending production of the $140 million superfighter, which critics maintain is poorly suited for anti-insurgent battles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Air Force would not immediately comment on the complaint. Lockheed said in a statement it "does not believe there is any merit to the allegations and will vigorously defend this matter in court."
Olsen contends Lockheed applied more than 600 pounds of extra layers of coatings so the jet could pass the stealth tests required by the Air Force. The layers were needed because the coating rubbed off when exposed to jet oil, fuel and water, the complaint said.
It left the supersonic fighters with "extremely thick coatings (that) have proved brittle" and the coatings designed to be paper-thin have now compromised the superfighter's velocity and maneuverability, the lawsuit said. It said the process has essentially painted a "bulls-eye target" on aircraft designed to avoid radar detection.
In the lawsuit, Olsen is asking the judge to order Lockheed to pay the federal government $50 million for each of the 183 F-22's built or under construction as part of the contract. He is also asking the judge to order Lockheed to pay his legal fees.
Olsen could not be reached for comment and his attorney did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Several whistleblower lawsuits have been filed over the years targeting other high-profile Air Force projects, but this appears to be the first filed against the controversial Raptor project, said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at the Teal Group, an aerospace consulting firm.
"There have been claims of huge cost overruns against the Raptor, but it's largely not been targeted by lawsuits," Aboulafia said. "This is not a typical charge _ and it might be the only of its kind."
John D. Gresham, a researcher and defense analyst who is writing a book on the F-22, said Lockheed and the Air Force go to great lengths to preserve the coating and that engineers have an "absurdly small" margin for error. He said the aircraft has gone through several generations of development since Olsen left the company a decade ago.
"In our business, that's an eternity," he said. "If I was a judge, I'd throw it out on that basis alone."
On the Net:
Lockheed Martin Corp.: http://www.lockheedmartin.com/
Air Force F-22 site: http://www.af.mil/information/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id199