Pentagon Grounds F-35 Fleet Following Runway Fire

The Pentagon grounded its F-35 fleet on Thursday after one of the Air Force’s planes caught fire June 23 at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The so-called Joint Strike Fighter, developed at a cost of nearly $400 billion so far, has been plagued by cost overruns and delays.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby explained to CNN that the cause of the June incident remains under investigation and the timing of when the F-35 might take off again is unclear. He added, “Additional inspections of F-35 engines have been ordered, and return to flight will be determined based on inspection results and analysis of engineering data.”

Engine maker Pratt & Whitney released a statement about the fire, saying it is working with Air Force investigators to inspect all F-35 engines in the fleet. Lead contractor Lockheed Martin added that it was working with investigators as well. The contractor is building variants of the plane for the U.S. Navy, Marines, and Air Force.

Ultimately, the Pentagon wants more than 2,400 of the new warplanes, while hundreds more are expected to be shipped to allies like South Korea, Japan, and Australia. More than 100 of the planes have been built so far, mostly for testing.

The Pentagon’s order to ground the F-35 fleet is the latest in a series of problems for the controversial aircraft. The price tag on the planes has nearly doubled from early estimates and its schedule, software, and other setback have made it the most expensive aircraft the military has developed so far.

The military says that the stealthy fighter will be “the most affordable, lethal, supportable and survivable aircraft ever to be used” by so many military branches worldwide. A March U.S. Accountability Office report put the aircraft’s price tag at $135 million per unit as of last year.

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Reuters notes that the Pentagon’s F-35 program office has made determining the cause of last month’s fire its highest priority. It is assessing the impact of the grounding on flight tests, training, and operations of the warplane.

All models of the Pentagon’s newest warplane have been grounded in the past for various issues. However, the version for the Marines, the F-35B, has had more problems due to its design for shorter takeoffs and vertical landings.

The F-35 is expected to make a much-anticipated appearance at the international air show at Farnborough airport in Hampshire, England in the coming weeks. With the Pentagon’s order to ground the F-35 fleet, that appearance may not happen. Experts say that a no-show could indicate a more serious problem with the engine than the Pentagon has revealed so far.

[Image by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class D. Keith Simmons]