Hagel to visit site of F-35 fire

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday will visit the air base where an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter caught fire last month, grounding the entire fleet.

The visit to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida is designed to “send a strong message to our international partners that the U.S. remains fully committed to the F-35 program,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said during a briefing Tuesday.

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A fire erupted aboard an Air Force variant of the multimillion-dollar jet on June 23 as it attempted to take off, leading the military to launch a full investigation.

Last week the armed services ordered their entire fleet of 97 fighters grounded, a signal that there could be a systemic problem with the aircraft or its engine. Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney are the primary contractors for the weapons effort.

Hagel will meet with investigators trying to uncover the cause of the blaze, according to Kirby. The Florida visit is part of a two-day domestic tour of military installations by Hagel.

The latest setback for the nearly $400 billion program came as the Marine Corps version of the F-35 was slated to appear at two air shows in Great Britain next week in an effort to showcase the fighter and boost the confidence of international partners who have placed expensive orders for the plane.

Kirby said no decision had been made yet on whether the F-35 would fly in the U.K. but a verdict is “coming pretty soon.”

“We’d be disappointed if we didn’t take it to Farnborough,” he told reporters in reference to the Farnborough International Airshow, beginning Saturday in Hampshire, England.

However, “no one wants to rush these aircraft back into the air,” according to Kirby.

He said the fire was “not the first, and wouldn’t be the last” incident to hit the program but it has done “nothing to shake the confidence” Pentagon leaders have in the jet.