A Marine F-35B joint strike fighter lifts off from the runway during the first short take-off and vertical landing mission at of the model last year. The Pentagon announced July 15 that the F-35 will not be flying to the Farnborough Airshow. (Samuel King Jr./Air Force)
LONDON AND WASHINGTON — The F-35 joint strike fighter will not be flying at the Farnborough International Airshow, to the disappointment of attendees, program supporters and partnered militaries.
It was a whirlwind day of emotion for the program on Tuesday, talk of which has dominated both Farnborough and last week’s Royal International Air Tattoo despite the jets having missed their planned international debut.
Early Tuesday morning, word surfaced that the Pentagon had ended a July 3 grounding order for the fleet, the result of an ongoing investigation into the cause of a June 23 fire on an Air Force F-35A model. However, the aircraft are limited to a speed of .9 Mach, 18 degrees of angle of attack, -1 to +3 G-forces and a “half-a-stick-deflection for rolls,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday.
After three hours of flight time, the front fan section of each engine must undergo an inspection with a borescope, Kirby said.
“When we operate aircraft, we look at many factors, to include operational risk, the weather, ground time, maintenance issues,” Kirby said. “All these factors were weighed appropriately in making this difficult decision.”
For a few hours, it looked as though the plane would make it to Farnborough around the end of the week. But later on Tuesday, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos made the decision not to send the U.S. F-35B aircraft to Europe, Kirby said.
“While we’re disappointed we’re not going to participate in the air show, we remain fully committed to the program itself and look forward to future opportunities to showcase its capabilities to allies and partners,” Kirby said.
Safety has been the key concern for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel throughout the process, a point he emphasized when visiting the F-35 schoolhouse at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida last week.
“Nobody in senior leadership wanted to rush to do this for the sake of the air show,” Kirby said.
Kirby said the Pentagon remains fully committed to the multibillion-dollar F-35 program.
“We haven’t seen anything that points to a systemic issue across the fleet, with respect to the engine,” he said.
Matthew Bates, spokesman for engine-maker Pratt & Whitney, said the company respects the decision to keep the plane from flying at Farnborough. “We have worked closely with the DoD and the services to return the fleet to flight,” he wrote in a statement.
A statement from prime contractor Lockheed Martin echoed the sentiment.
“While we were looking forward to the F-35 demonstration at Farnborough, we understand and support the DoD and UK MoD’s decision,” Lockheed spokeswoman Laura Siebert wrote in a statement.
The question of whether the fifth-generation jet will arrive and perform for the crowd has been the single biggest topic at the show, with even executives from rival companies expressing hope they would get to see the fighter in person.
The role of partner nations, particularly the UK, has made the F-35 historically unique among defense programs. It has also led to intense interest from many nations that have supported, or may support in the future, the joint strike fighter.
It has also made it extremely complicated. In addition to three different U.S. services, the jet has eight partner nations spread around the globe. That is an unprecedented model, and one Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall said could work for future programs — if used in the right situation.
“The critical feature making that possible now is the importance of the system of warfighting for everyone who is on the program. If you have that, if you have a strong commitment, if you have a requirement that is very attractive to people in terms of the weapon systems concept, then you can make it work.
“I think for your average program you need to be pretty careful about this before you start on this path, because it’s much harder to manage and hold everybody together in this kind of arrangement.”
Reflecting generally on the program, Kendall called the jet “an interesting case study,” adding that in 1994, he thought the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy could “never” get commonality with each other.
And while the fact the jet will not be at Farnborough is unquestionably a blow to the PR campaign for the jet, Kendall remains optimistic about the future of the program.
“If you compound that problem by bringing in eight partners, it would not have been a recipe or success, I would have thought at the beginning, but we’ve done it,” he said. “It is a real credit to all our partners and services that they were able to work together and everybody has stuck with this program.
“Everybody has remained committed to it. I think that’s frankly because of the quality of the product more than anything else. I think it is becoming a success story. It will be a success story.”
Marcus Weisgerber in Washington contributed to this report.