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Federal case details Pratt & Whitney's difficulties with parts suppliers

An F-35 Lightning II fighter jet makes a test flight over Fort Worth, Texas, in September 2008.

Looking for answers, a Pratt & Whitney representative and the president of an East Hartford machine shop pulled into the parking lot for one of their raw materials suppliers in West Bridgewater, Mass.

For weeks, questions swirled about the authenticity and integrity of A&P Alloy Inc.'s titanium, a popular aerospace metal for its strength and light weight, according to a federal court case filed by Pratt & Whitney on Friday against the company.

The issues posed a threat to the most important project in Pratt & Whitney's military portfolio, the engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the largest procurement project in Pentagon history. All the hunting for information, testing of titanium and replacement of parts that had already made it into delivered military engines cost Pratt & Whitney more than $1 million, according to court documents.

Pratt & Whitney, a division of Hartford's United Technologies Corp., made calls to A&P Alloys, sent the company emails, and reached out to other links in the titanium supply chain to run down the facts about this titanium. Then, it decided to stop by.

The morning of the visit to West Bridgewater, May 29, the company's president, John J. Palie Jr., waited in the parking lot of the squat, blue building, which features an American flag and the company's name in large metallic letters.

When the visitors from Pratt and Lewis Machining LLC arrived, according to court documents, he "refused to permit access to the facility or to turn over the requested records despite being reminded that the purchase orders granted both Pratt & Whitney and Lewis these rights."

Pratt & Whitney's account of the incident, outlined in the federal court case, describes a serious effort by the company to sort out exactly where the titanium originated and whether it was accurately stamped with certifications ensuring that it was suited for use in the high-temperature, high-pressure, critical environment of the engine of a military aircraft.

The issue surfaced in May when Lewis Machining received a shipment of titanium that lacked complete documentation. The metal failed quality tests ordered by Lewis, which then triggered a round of testing from Pratt.

The court documents claim that A&P Alloys lied numerous times about the origins of the metal and, in some cases, told intermediate suppliers to withhold information from Pratt & Whitney.

Pressure built at Pratt & Whitney and appeared to spill out publicly days after the visit, when the company's head of engineering and operations, Danny Di Perna, spoke to businesses at an industry event, visibly upset about some supplier issue.

"There are some folks out here … that do bad things with material," Di Perna said on May 30, not specifically citing the titanium problem but explaining that he had been dealing with an issue since 7:30 the night before. "I'm very upset about it. … But I'm telling you, integrity."

Although he cited no specifics of the issue, he constantly returned to supplier honesty and quality. "The supply chain I don't think is ready" for higher production, he said. "We are not going to put up with nonperformance anymore."

The federal court case offers a unique glimpse into how Pratt & Whitney maintains quality and compliance among its field of suppliers for hundreds of thousands of parts. With steep production increases on the horizon, the incident shows just how much the company relies on the honesty of its suppliers and redundant testing measures to keep the operation on track.

On Friday, the same day that the lawsuit was filed, news services reported that parts from the questionable titanium had made it into more than 140 delivered aircraft engines. Pratt & Whitney is asking the court to rule against A&P Alloys for fraud, negligent misrepresentation and breach of contract, and to grant Pratt & Whitney an amount to be determined at trial.

Reached by phone Tuesday morning, A&P Alloys declined to comment, saying that a representative for the company would respond later in the day.

Titanium is in many ways the lifeblood of aerospace manufacturing. United Technologies and other aerospace companies recently have built up stockpiles of the material as the political situation heats up between Ukraine and Russia, a major titanium supplier.

Last year, separate issues regarding its titanium supply resulted in Pratt & Whitney's reviewing parts in many of its engines. In that case, as in this one, the company said that the parts were found to be out of conformance with standards but safe enough to not pose a flight safety risk.

"Pratt & Whitney is conducting a rigorous analysis of the material in question in accordance with our standard procedures," the company said in a statement Saturday. "While the tested material may not meet every Pratt & Whitney material control standard, our engine designs have significant amounts of margin and, based on our engineering assessments, such material does not pose a risk to safety of flight."

The titanium issue also has no direct connection to an engine fire that caused the F-35 fleet to be grounded this spring and miss a pair of major European aerospace shows. The fire, officials concluded, was caused by fan blades rubbing.

When Pratt discovered the most recent metal issue, it reported it to the Defense Criminal Investigation Services, the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations and the U.S. Attorney's Office.

The visit to West Bridgewater followed unsuccessful attempts to get information from A&P Alloys through email and conference calls. Later that evening, the lawsuit says, A&P Alloys' Palie changed his mind and sent new documentation to Pratt, explaining that some of the titanium came from RTI International and the rest from a Russian mill, which is prohibited by federal law to be used in Defense Department equipment.

The metal from RTI was supposedly refined at Valley Forge LLC although Valley Forge later told Pratt that it sold none of that metal to A&P Alloys, according to documents referenced in the lawsuit. Pratt then called RTI, which helped confirm that none of the metal went to A&P Alloys.

©2014 The Hartford (Conn.) Courant. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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