Shortly before 9 p.m. on July 3 the Pentagon quietly announced it was grounding the entire F-35 Joint Strike Fighter fleet in response to a runway fire, potentially derailing a month of high-profile events intended to sell the military’s most expensive weapon to date.
The incident in question occurred at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida on June 23, where the pilot of the Air Force model F-35A was forced to abandon the aircraft right before takeoff. No one was hurt, but Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said the cause of the fire has yet to be determined. It’s unclear when the multiple-purpose $399-billion plane will be cleared again for flight.
“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,” Kirby said according to CNN.
Engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney and lead contractor Lockheed Martin said they were working with Air Force investigators to inspect the engines of the entire fleet, which includes model variants for the Navy, Marines and Air Force.
F-35s will eventually support a host of capabilities never before implemented in a single fighter model, including supersonic speed, stealth-based radar evasion, and short vertical takeoff and landing abilities. Prior to last month’s runway fire, test pilots were pushing the F-35′s flight envelope daily.
More than 100 planes have been built for testing so far with plans for an eventual total of more than 2,400 units. The cost of development and deadlines for completion have been repeatedly pushed back over the program’s 10-year history, and the cost of each individual unit has risen from an initial estimate of $81 million to between $112 and $161 million.
The total operating cost of the aircraft’s entire lifetime is expected to exceed $1 trillion, and the cost of development is already more than 70-percent over budget.
“Effectively saying that the most expensive warplane in American history is too dangerous to fly is a huge public relations blow for the Pentagon,” Foreign Policy’s Kate Brannen wrote Tuesday. “Lockheed Martin could also take a hit to its bottom line if the F-35 isn’t cleared to fly to the United Kingdom for a pair of high-profile international air shows packed with potential customers.”
According to the report, Lockheed has F-35 subcontractors and suppliers (and therefore jobs) spread across at least 45 states, virtually guaranteeing its continued support among members of Congress — even in the face of the fleet’s third grounding in 17 months.
In September of last year concerns were raised that the fighters’ tires were wearing out too fast. In January DOD released a report stating Lockheed had delivered jets with only 50 percent of the operating software required under its contract, and the planes were grounded in February after a crack was discovered in an engine turbine blade. They were grounded again as recently as June over an in-flight oil leak, which forced the pilot to make an emergency landing.
The Pentagon has yet to state whether or not the Marine F-35B will be cleared to fly next week in the U.K.’s Royal International Air Tattoo and Farnborough International Airshow. Defense officials are counting on F-35 purchases from allies including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea, Turkey, and the U.K. in order to keep the cost of production from rising even further.
Grounding the fleet has already resulted in the plane missing its July 4 international debut flight in Scotland over the naming ceremony of the H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth — the British Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier.
“Nobody wants to rush these aircraft back into the air before we know exactly what happened and investigators have a chance to do their work,” Kirby said. “It absolutely doesn’t do anything to shake our confidence in the F-35 program and the progress that has been made both from an engineering and from a financial perspective.”