EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — Its entire fleet grounded since July 3, doubts remain as to whether the Joint Strike Fighter will be able to participate in a prestigious airshow next week, as the ‘drop dead date’ approaches.
The F-35 was to make a high-profile appearance at the high-status Farnborough International Airshow in the U.K. next week.
“We’re not going to put the F-35 in the air send it anywhere until we are absolutely convinced and know that it’s safe to fly … As to timing, I’ll leave that up to the experts who will come back with us and make a recommendation,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Thursday during a visit to Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.
Eglin, home to the F-35 Integrated Training Center, is a key training location for Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy Joint Strike Fighter pilots and maintainers.
Hagel did not say when a decision has to be made in order to get the Joint Strike Fighter to the U.K. in time for it to take part in the airshow. But a defense official, speaking to Stars and Stripes on condition of anonymity to more freely discuss deployment timelines, said Sunday is the “drop dead date.”
“Preparations continue … I think there’s still hope … There’s still a possibility it might happen,” according to the official.
“Certainly we’d be disappointed if we weren’t able to take it to Farnborough. I mean, this is something that we’re looking forward to,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said Tuesday when asked about the possibility of the F-35 not being there.
The entire F-35 fleet was grounded by Air Force and Navy technical air worthiness authorities July 3 based on the initial findings from an investigation into a June 23 runway fire here.
The fire broke out on the back end of an F-35 during an aborted takeoff. The fire was extinguished and the pilot escaped serious injury, according to the Air Force.
The incident remains under investigation, but officials suspect a problem with the engine.
“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,” the Department of Defense said in a statement last week.
On Thursday, Hagel said the engine inspections are complete, but investigators are still looking at the data and haven’t issued any recommendations yet as to when flights can resume.
“What they’re doing now is taking all the information that they got from the inspections and they’re putting all that together and continuing the overall investigation to see how does this all match up and what do we have,” Hagel told reporters here.
This isn’t the first time that the entire F-35 fleet has been grounded. Last year, all flight operations were halted when a crack was found in a turbine blade in one of the planes’ engines.
The Joint Strike Fighter — produced by Lockheed Martin — is one of the top acquisition priorities for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Each service has a variant: the Navy version is modified to operate from aircraft carriers, and the Marine Corps variant can take off and land vertically like a helicopter. A number of U.S. allies are involved in the program and intend to purchase their own F-35s.
“I believe this aircraft is the future for our fight aircraft for our services. This is as big a project … as we have at the Department of Defense, and we’ve got a lot riding on this aircraft, as well as eight partners around the world who have invested in this aircraft,” Hagel told troops at Eglin.
But the aircraft is the most expensive acquisition program in Pentagon history and has been plagued by major cost overruns and development delays. The services plan to purchase more than 2,400 Joint Strike Fighters over time at an estimated cost of approximately $400 billion — paying about 70 percent more than original projections for an even larger buy.
About 100 planes have been delivered, but they are not yet ready for combat.
Winslow Wheeler, a military reform advocate at the Project on Government Oversight, believes the decision to assign so many combat roles and advanced technologies to a single aircraft has undermined the program and made it extremely costly.
“When you pile on” requirements with “each of those levels of technology adding a new level of complexity, you have … a fundamentally flawed design,” Wheeler told Stars and Stripes.
Wheeler says the jets are unaffordable, at least in the quantities that the Pentagon desires.
“We’ll have to start shrinking the buy to fit it into the top line of available defense budgets in coming years,” Wheeler said. “The defenders of the program inside the Pentagon have drawn a line in the sand as deep as they possibly can to maintain the current buy, but at some point that’s going to give.”