Airmen from the 58th Aircraft Maintenance Unit on May 28 look over the 26th and final F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 33rd Fighter Wing on Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. A June 23 F-35A fire on the Eglin runway is under investigation. (Senior Airman Christopher Callawat / Air Force)
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The Air Force’s F-35A fighter fleet remained grounded for the 11th day Wednesday, following the June 23 fire that damaged one of the jets at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
The Air Force’s fleet of 45 jets at four bases remain on the ground while an investigation is ongoing. But the F-35B fleet, flown by the Marine Corps and international partners, returned to the air on June 27. The Navy’s F-35C fleet also remained grounded as of July 2.
The Air Force safety investigation board has about 30 days for its initial assessment of the mishap, with an accident investigation board to follow, Air Education and Training Command spokeswoman Capt. Ashley Walker said.
The Lockheed Martin aircraft are still in the development phase. The Air Force anticipates initial operating capability by late 2016.
A fire broke out on the aft end of an F-35A as it was taking off at Eglin for a training mission. The pilot was able to stop the jet and shut down the engine before egressing, and emergency crews were able to extinguish the flames. AETC has provided no information on the extent of the damage to the jet. Lockheed says the cost of one F-35A in under $100 million.
The F-35Bs’ earlier return to flight coincides with the first planned overseas deployment of the jets. Four of the variants are scheduled to fly to England for the Farnborough International Air Show July 14-20 near London. Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Richard Ulsh said the service is continuing with its plans to deploy the aircraft despite the brief grounding. Ulsh did not say why the Marine Corps decided to resume flying. Eglin is the site of all F-35 instructor training, with Navy, Marine Corps and international partners sending their pilots to the Florida base.
The Air Force expects to buy 1,763 F-35As. It 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.
The current grounding is the second for the fleet. In 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.