F-35 gets limited OK after fire

WASHINGTON — The Navy and Air Force have approved a limited return to flight for their new-generation F-35 fighter jet, keeping alive the possibility that it could make an appearance at the Farnborough International Airshow in England this week.

The Pentagon announced on Tuesday that Navy and Air Force officials approved the flight resumption on Monday but imposed restrictions that will remain in effect until the cause of a June 23 engine fire is identified and corrected.

A Nellis Air Force Base spokeswoman said none of the F-35s at the base at the north end of the Las Vegas Valley had resumed flying Tuesday afternoon.

Nellis now has four F-35 Lightning IIs but is expected to have 36 for testing and training by 2020. They are assigned to the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, a tenant squadron at Nellis from the 53rd Wing in Florida.

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 entire fleet of nearly 100 planes was grounded after the fire at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Initially the military declared a temporary suspension of F-35 flight operations while a safety investigation was conducted. But military leaders later halted all flights and ordered inspections of the F-35 engines to determine whether there was a systemic problem or the issue was limited to the one damaged aircraft.

The Pentagon’s announcement Tuesday did not give any investigation details. It said additional information would be provided later.

Farnborough would be the plane’s first overseas air show.

The Pentagon’s press secretary, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, said Tuesday that officials “remain hopeful” that the F-35 can make an appearance at Farnborough.

He said the limited return to flight was encouraging but no final decision has been made on the air show.

The F-35 is the Pentagon’s most expensive aircraft program, costing an estimated $400 billion.

Review-Journal writer Keith Rogers contributed with this report.

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