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Military's pricey F-35 fighter jet catches fire during takeoff in Florida

F-35A Lightning IIs, perform an aerial refueling mission with a KC-135 Stratotanker off the coast of northwest Florida, on May 13, 2013.

A fire broke out on a F-35 Joint Strike Fighter after an attempted takeoff at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

The radar-evading, supersonic fighter jet, an almost $400 billion weapons program under development for more than a decade, experienced the emergency on the ground Monday at 10:15 a.m. Eastern time.

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

The pilot left the aircraft uninjured, officials said.

It’s the latest setback for the F-35 program, which is 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. Known as the Joint Strike Fighter, the 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.

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.

At Eglin, the Air Force has not yet uncovered a reason for the fire. But the military said additional details will be provided as they become available. The 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin provides F-35 pilot and maintainer training for the Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force.

It is not yet clear how the event will affect the more than 100 F-35s that are flying at various bases around the country. However, all F-35 flight operations for the Air Force at Eglin have been temporarily suspended as the military investigates the cause of the incident.

“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.”

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