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F-35 fighter jets to resume flights at Eglin after fire led to grounding

An F-35A Lightning II takes off from the Eglin Air Force Base on Aug. 21, 2013.

A fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets is expected to return to regular flight operations at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida after being grounded because of a fire this week.

All F-35 flight operations for the Air Force at the base had been temporarily suspended as the military investigated the incident. A spokesman at the base said flight operations were expected to resume Wednesday.

Early Monday, one of the radar-evading, supersonic fighter jets caught fire before takeoff. The pilot left the aircraft uninjured, officials said.

The aircraft was preparing to take off on a training mission but aborted when flames appeared in the rear of the aircraft. Emergency responders then extinguished the fire with foam, according to an Air Force statement.

“The pilot followed the appropriate procedures which allowed for the safe abort of the mission, engine shutdown, and egress,” Navy Capt. Paul Haas, 33rd Fighter Wing vice commander, said in a statement. “We take all ground emergencies seriously.”

An Air Force safety board is expected to begin investigating the incident to determine the cause.

It’s the latest setback for the F-35, an almost $400 billion weapons program under development for more than a decade but billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. The per-plane cost estimates have gone from $78 million in 2001 to $135 million today, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Testing the F-35 is key to the Pentagon’s ultimate plan to build 2,457 of the planes. The Joint Strike Fighter program centered around a plan to develop one basic fighter plane that could — with a few manufacturing tweaks — be used by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

The idea is that it can take off and land on runways and aircraft carriers, as well as hover like a helicopter. No one stealthy fighter aircraft has had all these capabilities. From an engineering standpoint, it’s a challenging task for plane maker Lockheed Martin Corp. because the requirements of the different services vary so much.

More than 100 F-35s are flying at bases around the country.

Problems repeatedly crop up in flight testing. On June 13, test flights were temporarily halted and mandatory inspections were ordered for all versions of the jets after a Marine F-35 suffered an in-flight emergency with its engine.

The Air Force said additional details on the event at Eglin will be provided as they become available. The 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin provides training for F-35 pilots and mechanics for the Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force.

A Lockheed spokesman said that the company is aware of the incident at Eglin and is prepared to provide any assistance requested by the Air Force.

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