Air Force grounds F-35s for safety check after fire

WASHINGTON — The Air Force Thursday grounded its fleet of F-35 fighter jets made by Lockheed Martin Corp. as a safety precaution after a fire on one of the planes forced an aborted takeoff.

The temporary suspension of flight operations applies to the Air Force’s 45 “A model” planes, some of which are based at Nellis Air Force Base. The Defense Department didn’t direct a halt to tests of the Marine Corps and Navy versions of the jet, known as the Joint Strike Fighter.

The grounding was the latest setback for the F-35, the costliest U.S. weapons system, which is being built even as it’s still being developed. The order was issued after an emergency at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida on June 23, when a fire in the rear of one plane forced the pilot to abort a takeoff.

“As a precautionary measure, the Air Force has decided to temporarily suspend all F-35A operations until it is determined that flights can resume safely,” the Air Force said in a statement. “This is not an uncommon practice following a mishap. It ensures the safety of our crews and our aircraft so we can determine there is no fleetwide issue that needs to be addressed.”

The cause of the Eglin incident remained under investigation, Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Thursday. The Navy couldn’t immediately be reached for comment, while the Marines had no immediate comment on whether any of their flight operations would be affected.

Nellis now has four F-35 Lightning IIs but is expected to have 36 for testing and training by 2020.

The latest one, priced at $67 million, was flown to Nellis from Lockheed Martin’s production plant in Fort Worth, Texas, in April 2013. That F-35 had been expected to arrive a month earlier but the pilot made a precautionary landing March 11, 2013, at the Lubbock, Texas, airport for what a spokesman later described as “a wire connector issue in the flight control system.”

The F-35 was stranded in Lubbock while technicians spent weeks troubleshooting the problem in the complex, triple-redundant flight control system before tracing it to an issue with the communication system. The problem was fixed, and the plane was flown back to the plant for more testing. It finally arrived at Nellis on April 24, 2013.

The F-35 has been plagued by a costly redesign, bulkhead cracks, excessive weight and delays in software. Building all 2,443 planes is projected to cost $398.6 billion, a 71 percent increase in inflation-adjusted dollars since the contract with Lockheed, the largest U.S. defense contractor, was signed in 2001.

The Air Force’s F-35s are at four bases: Nellis, Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, Edwards Air Force Base in California, and Eglin, said Maj. Natasha Waggoner, an Air Force spokeswoman.

Lockheed will assist in any investigation of the fire at Eglin, said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the Bethesda, Maryland-based company. He referred any further comments to the Air Force.

Two weeks ago, the Pentagon ordered that all F-35 engines must be inspected before the planes could resume flying. That order, issued June 13, came in response to an “in-flight emergency” on June 10, when a Marine Corps F-35 had to return to base at Air Station Yuma, Ariz., after its engine lost oil. There were no injuries. Inspections of three other planes at the station revealed “suspect findings,” the Defense Department said in a statement.

Last year, the Pentagon grounded all F-35s after a routine engine inspection revealed a crack on a turbine blade in a test aircraft at Edwards. Flights resumed about a week later after further inspections found no other problems.

While defense officials have cited progress for the F-35, Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, has said it hasn’t yet demonstrated sufficient reliability improvements. There’s “some marginal evidence of improvement, but it’s not enough,” Kendall said June 12.

Review-Journal writer Keith Rogers contributed to this report.