F-35’s air show debut in jeopardy

Department of Defense

The Pentagon’s costly fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters is grounded, just a week before the military’s jet of the future was to have its coming-out party at two air shows in Great Britain.

The latest problem for the $400 billion program, which is already seven years behind schedule, came after an engine on one of the F-35s caught fire during a June 23 takeoff from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

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The fire led the Pentagon to ground the entire fleet, and officials on Monday said it’s uncertain whether the jets will be cleared for takeoff by next week.

A decision on whether to allow the planes to fly will be made in the “next several days,” according to Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren, based on the aircraft’s “safety and airworthiness.”

The latest disruption could hardly come at a worse time for the F-35.

The Pentagon and contractors Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney had hoped to showcase the Marine Corps’s version of the jet, which takes off vertically and hovers like a helicopter, at the Royal International Air Tattoo in Gloucestershire, England, beginning on July 11.

Military leaders and contractors from around the world are set to take part in the air show and in the similar Farnborough International Airshow, beginning July 14, in Hampshire, England. The shows were supposed to boost confidence in the F-35, which has suffered from a string of mechanical problems that include faulty tires, in-flight oil leaks and malfunctioning helmets.

The Pentagon sees the jet as a critical part of the U.S. military going forward, and 10 countries, including the United States, have already placed orders to purchase the F-35. Lockheed Martin is the jet’s main contractor, while Pratt & Whitney manufactures its engine.

The Pentagon on Monday said there’s been no decision to pull out of the two air shows, and the two contractors said they were working closely with the military to figure out what caused the June 23 engine fire.

 “We are working closely with the Air Force Safety Investigation Board to determine root cause and inspect all engines in the fleet,” Pratt & Whitney spokesman Matthew Bates said in a statement.

He said it would be inappropriate to comment further because the incident was the subject of an ongoing investigation.

A spokesman for Lockheed also said the company is working closely with the Pentagon and industry partners. 

“Safety is our team’s top priority,” said Lockheed Martin spokesman Michael Rein.

Development on the F-35, which is intended to replace four older jets used by different branches of the military, first began in 2001. At the time, it was hoped the jets would be ready for combat by 2010.

Since then, a number of design flaws and mechanical problems have led costs to overrun by 70 percent. It’s estimated it will cost about $1.5 trillion to finish developing and take care of the fleet.

Lockheed originally claimed it could develop 2,852 planes for $233 billion, but now the military plans to purchase around 2,400 for a much higher cost.

The cost overruns have led to plenty of criticism for the F-35, but it also has bipartisan support — partly because its development has been spread across more than 40 states, giving it considerable clout in Congress.

It’s also a crucial part of the Pentagon’s plans for the future, and is seen as a linchpin for possible military offensives against opponents ranging from Iran to China.

As a result, the latest setback is likely to be met with a collective shrug by lawmakers who have come to accept that the costly program is perennially delayed and that the effort has reached the point of no return in terms of a final price tag.

F-35 Joint Program Office officials will brief the House Armed Services Committee on the ramifications of the flight ban at the end of July, according to panel spokesman Claude Chafin.

Committee members are principally concerned about how the grounding will affect the effort to complete the F-35, Chafin said.