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On-board fire investigation prompts Air Force to ground all F-35s, while Marines, Navy remain hesitant

Jun. 26, 2014 - 06:30PM   |  
An Air Force F-35A Lightning II flies over the coast of Fort Walton Beach, Fla.
An Air Force F-35A Lightning II flies over the coast of Fort Walton Beach, Fla. (Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen / Air Force)
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The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps have halted all F-35 flights after a fire damaged an Air Force F-35A during takeoff Monday morning at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

Initially only F-35A flights at Eglin were grounded Tuesday, and the base said then it expected flights to resume Wednesday.

The Air Force said Thursday that major commands, including Air Force Education and Training Command, Air Combat Command and Air Force Materiel Command have decided to stop F-35A flights while the investigation continues into Monday’s fire.

“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,” Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Natasha Waggoner 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.”

Eglin is home to all F-35 instructor pilot training, including for the F-35B and F-35C variants of other services and other nations. The Navy said Thursday that local commanders at Patuxent Naval Air Station, Maryland, and Eglin have decided to stop F-35C flights while the investigation continues.

At about 9:15 a.m. Monday, a fire broke out on the aft end of an F-35A piloted by an instructor pilot. The pilot was taking off as part of a two-ship continuation training mission. The pilot was able to stop the jet, shut down the engine and egress safely. The pilot was not injured, and crews were able to extinguish the fire.

Eglin officials have not released any information on the extent of the damage, pending the investigation. The base has not released the tail number of the aircraft.

Last February, the Defense Department grounded all F-35s for about a week after a crack was found in the engine of the Marine Corps F-35B variant. An investigation found that heat cracked a blade in the engine of the aircraft. The blade was replaced and flights resumed.

The Air Force expects to buy 1,763 F-35As, with initial operating capability expected by late 2016. The Defense Department expects the sustainment cost for the F-35 program to be about $857 billion, with Lockheed officials saying the cost for one F-35A is less than $100 million.

The Air Force recently stood up the main F-35A training program at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, which will eventually have 144 F-35As. The Air Force’s first operational base, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, will have 72 F-35As. The first Air National Guard base, Burlington Air Guard Station, Vermont, will eventually receive 18 F-35As beginning in 2020.

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